Malala the miracle educates us all

February 4, 2013

Most of the world first heard of Malala Yousufzai, whose name means “grief-stricken,” when they read the news in October that members of the militant Pakistani Taliban religious sect had boarded the ninth-grader’s school bus, asked for her by name and — at point blank range — shot her in the head and neck.


Mohammed Rehman – AFP/Getty Images

The fundamentalist group, determined to enforce Sharia law, objected to the tenor and theme of the 14-year-old schoolgirl’s 2009 online diary, calling her crusade for education rights for girls an “obscenity.”

“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” a Taliban spokesman said,  “Let this be a lesson.”

When Malala was 11, her online musings, written in her native Urdu language, about a new edict in her village banning women from getting an education, were published by the BBC.  Though she wrote under a pen name, even a 7th century zealot, could have pierced the sixth-grader’s anonymity. Within months of the January BBC story, the New York Times had made a documentary about Malala’s family and the plight of their village, featuring her father, Ziauddin, who ran the school for girls that she attended.

The 19-minute short is powerful journalism, and the remarkable young woman at its heart (who is adorable, wise and speaks excellent English) was a compelling spokesperson for justice. The villagers in her Swat Valley region fought a rebellion against the extremists, and after the Pakistani Army pushed them out, her father’s school was allowed to reopen. For the next three years, until the men who came to kill her stepped onto her school bus, Malala continued her education.

Miraculously, and against all ballistic probability, the bad guys blew it. (The day she was attacked, a Taliban spokesman announced that if she survived, the militants would certainly try to kill her again.)  Although all are Muslim, whatever god the Taliban pray to must not be the same one watching out for the brave young woman, now 15.

“Let this be a lesson.”

Though a bullet lodged in her head, the teenage activist survived the blow.  She was given world-class medical care in the United Kingdom, while her family was quickly and permanently relocated.  (Ziauddin was given a post at the Pakistani consulate in Birmingham, England, where presumably his daughter is safer from violent radicals.) Malala has become an international icon for universal access to education.

Pakistan has pledged to provide cash incentives for families of girls enrolled in school.

On Sunday, Malala released a short video statement (“you see I am alive”) recorded in English and Urdu.  She is in the final stages of the procedure to reconstruct her skull. Over the weekend doctors surgically attached a titanium plate and implanted a cochlear device to restore hearing to Malala’s left ear.

As she continues to recuperate (“getting better day by day”), she encourages global supporters of women’s education to donate to the Malala Fund, an organization she expects to one day run. Administered by Vital Voices, a U.S.-based international advocacy organization, the fund plans to provide “grants and partner collaborations with civil society organizations” to help “every girl, every child to be educated.”

Before Malala takes on the mission of international advocacy full time, I suspect that among her first steps will be to enroll in one of Birmingham’s many fine girls’ academies and finish high school. If anyone deserves to enjoy her education, it’s Malala Yousufzai.

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Karen Tumulty · February 4, 2013