Malala Yousafzai has been awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, which she shares with Kailash Satyarthi, as recognition “for their struggle against oppression of young people and children in South Asia” (the Nobel committee chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland).
“This award is for all those children who are voiceless, whose voices need to be heard,” said Malala, who chose to finish her school day in the central English city of Birmingham before addressing the media.
Malala at the age of 17 seems to have set her priorities straight. She is an advocate for women’s education in her native Pakistan and around the world. Her message is simple, yet one that cannot be ignored: instead of waging wars and spreading violence, governments and institutions should invest in education of youth to embark on the development of the Global South.
In a recent meeting with Obama, Malala addressed – though not for the first time – on the US foreign policy of sending weapons to war-torn regions of Syria and Iraq: ‘Instead of sending guns, send books’, urging the president to reconsider the strategy of his government.
This is not the first time Malala had to take an uncomfortable stance on a politically sensitive situation. Having lived in some of the most conflict-ridden and remote regions of Pakistan, the Swat Valley, Malala as a young woman stood by her father’s vision for making education accessible for all girls and boys around her country.
Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who is a school owner and an educational activist. himself encouraged Malala to get an education in a place where girls are not supposed to get formal education. Ziauddin was part of the same tribal culture, but fortunately realized that his daughter could not be kept ignorant. This was a paradigm shift, and Malala and her family paid the price by almost losing her at the hands of an attack by the Taliban.
Luckily for us, Malala survived and gained a new sense of courage to pursue her cause in the face of adversity. She quickly learned to recognize her own voice and became outspoken about her cause for women’s education and challenged the patriarchy that is embedded in present-day Pakistani society.
She explains: “In Pakistan when women say they want independence, people think this means we don’t want to obey our fathers, brothers or husbands. But it does not mean that. It means we want to make decisions for ourselves. We want to be free to go to school or to go to work. Nowhere is it written in the Quran that a woman should be dependent on a man. The word has not come down from the heavens to tell us that every woman should listen to a man.”
Malala used the strength of her faith to chart her hazardous journey of liberating her from the fear of patriarchy. She turns the theological question around and uses it as a framework to argue for the importance of education. She was physically injured during the attack but did not become bitter, and that made her more determined in becoming a champion of raising awareness about female education.
In doing so, Malala has given voice to the majority of Muslims who have been made silent by the mainstream media and which has consequently given rise to Islamophobia, which is no different from Anti-Semitism, or other forms of racism.
As Leslie Hazelwood points out: “The vast and still far too silent majority, have ceded the public arena to this extremist minority. We’ve allowed Judaism to be claimed by violently messianic West Bank settlers, Christianity by homophobic hypocrites and misogynistic bigots, Islam by suicide bombers. And we’ve allowed ourselves to be blinded to the fact that no matter whether they claim to be Christians, Jews, or Muslims, militant extremists are none of the above. They’re a cult all their own, blood brothers steeped in other people’s blood.”
It is our hope that Malala assuages some of the concerns by the mainstream media and the current European anti-immigration policies, who are increasingly finding ignorance as an inherent part of being a Muslim.
Malala is a beacon of progress in the darkness of ignorance. The youth from all walks of life look up to her; the grownups admire her. The fact that she may not be able to live a normal life or visit her village for a long time is the reflection of her commitment.
Although critics have emerged over the years to argue that she is some kind of “Western Conspiracy”, Malala continues to prove them wrong. She knows what’s at stake here: a recent report from the United Nations’ Childrens’ Fund in South Asia recognised nearly 17.5 million girls aged between five and 13 are out of school and over 12 percent of children between 5 and 14 are engaged in labour in South Asia. Even if they don’t agree with a 17 year-old winning a Nobel Peace Prize, the least they can do is educate themselves about her cause and do something to contribute toward positive change.
Malala addressed her critics by saying the following words in her autobiography titled I am Malala:
“We human beings don’t realize how great God is. He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes which see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, and two ears to hear the words of love. As I found with my ear, no one knows how much power they have in their each and every organ until they lose one.”