Next week, on Friday 12 July – her 16th birthday – Malala Yousafzai will talk to the United Nations, and we should all listen.
Most people know Malala’s story: it began when she started to write a blog in 2009 for the BBC Urdu channel about life in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. At the time, private schools in the area had been ordered to close in a Taliban edict banning girls’ education. Militants seeking to impose their austere interpretation of Sharia law had destroyed about 150 schools in the past year, and Malala and her friends were afraid, yet rebellious – they wanted an education and believed that they had a right to be educated.
In her blog, Malala wrote about the challenges she faced, and the threats which she and her family endured. Although initially anonymous, she came out from behind the shadows to start to speak more openly, including to CNN and other news channels. In a 2011 interview with CNN, she said: “I have the right of education … I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to go to market. I have the right to speak up.”
These words caused her to become the focus of attention for the Taliban, who were behind the attack in October 2012 on her life; masked men boarded the bus in which she was travelling home, demanded to know which one of the girls was Malala, and then shot her at point-blank range. When news spread of this, the world was rightly horrified.
Although critically injured, Malala survived, and after several operations in Pakistan and then in the UK, she went back to school – a girls’ school in Birmingham, in the UK – and has continued to raise awareness (and now money) for girls’ education.
Her story is the story of a childhood which disappeared under threats of oppression and discrimination, but which, incredibly, she has turned into a force for good. Whether or not she ever intended for this to be the case, she has become a symbol for the power of educating women, and a reminder to us all that anything – everything – is possible if we only put our minds to it.
Listen to Malala next Friday. We honour her and recognise the value of her cause as we do so..