PORTRAIT OF A REVOLUTIONARY: Malala Yousafzai

A monthly series in which we pay tribute to a revolutionary, living or dead, who has shaped the world as we recognise it now.

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The Revolutionary:

Name: Malala Yousafzai
Born: 12 July, 1997
Place of Birth: Mingora, Swat, Pakistan

Best Known For: Standing up to the Taliban when they banned girls from attending school during their occupation of Swat, Malala’s birthplace; surviving an attack on her life when the Taliban shot her in the head at the age of 15; advocating for the right of every girl to attend school; being the world’s youngest Nobel Prize Laureate (she was 17 when awarded)

Core Beliefs:

Education is the right of every person; the gun has no power; peaceful protest is more powerful than violence; secondary education for girls can transform communities, countries and our world

Iconic Quotes:

Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that, why should I wait for someone else? Why don't I take a step and move forward.

We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced

One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.

When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.

With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.

Let us make our future now, and let us make our dream's tomorrow's reality.

Biography:

Malala was born in Mingora, Pakistan to Ziauddin and Toor Pekai Yousafzai in 1997. At the time, having a baby girl was often not celebrated in Pakistan, but her parents felt strongly that Malala must have every opportunity that a boy would have.

Ziauddin Yousafzai was a teacher in Pakistan, and Malala was an enthusiastic student. But in 2008 the Taliban invaded Swat Valley and banned girls from attending school. Malala was just 11 years old. Despite her age, Malala spoke publicly against the school ban on girls, and defending their right to learn.

In 2012, when she was 15 years old a masked gunman boarded her school bus and asked “Who is Malala?” before shooting her in the head. Miraculously, Malala survived the attack on her life. She woke up 10 days later in a hospital in Birmingham, England, facing months of surgeries and rehabilitation, and a new life in a new country.

Following her recovery, Malala says she realised that she had a choice: “I could live a quiet life or I could make the most of this new life I had been given. I determined to continue my fight until every girl could go to school.” With this commitment she established the Malala Fund, a charity dedicated to “giving every girl an opportunity to achieve a future she chooses.” She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for this work, making her the youngest Novel laureate in history.

Malala attended Oxford University from 2018 to 2020, and continues to fight for all girls to receive 12 years of free, safe, quality education.

Impact:

The Malala Fund has invested $22 million in programmes to give girls access to quality education across 8 countries.

Rather than building schools, they fund local educators and activists, prioritising networks and leveraging the collective work of education champions. Malala has shown that no voice is too small, and that one person really can make a huge difference by raising their voice to stand up for what they believe in.

Three Tips from a Revolutionary:

Peaceful protest is better than violence

Malala recalls a conversation that she had with she had with herself before the attack.

In it, she imagined what she might do if the Taliban came for her, and decided that the best course of action would be to “hit him with a shoe.” She then realized that this would make her no better than the Taliban.

In her own words: “You must not treat others with cruelty, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.”

Focus on the positive

Malala could have chosen to live a quiet life, she could have let the Taliban win when they shot her.

Instead, she chose to rise up bigger and louder than ever before. She credits focusing on the positive rather than imagining the worst for this, as well as gaining strength from friends and family.

“When you focus on the positive, change can happen for the better! When you believe in yourself you feel confident.”

One person can make a huge difference

Malala famously said “if one man can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?”

Instead of looking for someone to take action, she took it herself – even though she was 11 years old in a world that so often ignores the voices of children, and even though she was a girl, facing the sexist oppression of the Taliban.

One brave voice speaking the truth can transform the world.

Essential Reading:

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban By Malala Yousafzai, Christina Lamb

You can find a series of research papers by The Malala Fund in their Research Library

Essential Viewing:

Essential Listening:

Malala Yousafzai: What is Your Defining Moment? On Oprah’s Super Soul Podcast

This article is a part of our monthly “Portrait of a Revolutionary” series, in which we look at some of the influential figures who have created real change in the world. These revolutionaries span both time and geography, but what they have in common is that they took action. They are the individuals who sent electrical currents through our societies, who created paradigm shifts, and who sparked global movements.

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