The 21st century’s most famous schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by the Taliban – and survived. Since then, she has opened a school for Syrian refugees, taken on the president of Nigeria, and become the youngest recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize.
At the age of 18, her life story has become a movie. None of this would be possible if it hadn’t been for a convergence of extraordinary events that began in a village where people traditionally expressed sorrow for the parents of any child who isn’t a boy.
Malala was born on 12 July 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan. Named after an Afghan poet and woman warrior, Malala’s lineage is Pashtun, a tribe of the Swat Valley.
In Mingora, she was raised by her parents Ziauddin and Toor Pekai along with Khushal and Atal, her two younger brothers, and, in the early years, two pet chickens.
Speaking Pashto, English, and Urdu, Malala was educated at her father’s private school, which became several schools collectively called the Khushal Public School. Although initially wanting to be a doctor, she was encouraged by her activist father to consider a career in politics.
Malala was treated differently from the average female child at birth: her father put her name on the family register, something traditionally reserved for males. She was also allowed to stay up late and debate politics when her brothers had been sent to bed.
Her gift for public speaking came to the fore when she was only 11. Her father, Ziauddin, took her to a local press club in Peshawar, where his daughter stood up and spoke out against the Taliban regime, which was then blowing up girls’ schools in Swat Valley.
Her talk, entitled “How dare the Taliban to take away my basic right to education?”, inflamed passions on both sides but caught the attention of those covering the volatile region. Speaking out against the Taliban was tantamount to asking for a death sentence.
In 2009 Malala began secretly blogging for BBC Urdu under an assumed name. In December her identity was revealed and her fame was further fanned by a short film, Class Dismissed, made by the New York Times.
With a growing western platform, Malala continued to speak out for women’s right to education. Along with many other appearances, she was asked twice to participate on Pakistan’s oldest current affairs TV show Capital Talk, a show banned by General Musharraf in 2007.
The programme aims to show both sides of selected topics and was hosted by Hamid Mir, who was himself shot six times in 2014. In 2011, Archbishop Desmond Tutu put Malala forward for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
In the same year, she won Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. Accepting the award, she said that she did not belong to any particular political party but wanted to found her own national party to promote education.
A death threat was issued against her on the Taliban’s radio channel. On October 9, 2012, a masked gunman boarded Malala’s school bus and shouted, “Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise, I will shoot you all” He then shot Malala three times.
One bullet hit the left side of Malala’s forehead, went through her face and lodged near her spine at the shoulder. Two of her friends were also shot. Following the attack, Malala was left in critical condition and comatose. She was later flown to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, which specialises in war injuries.
There, Malala received further surgery as well as intensive, specialised rehabilitation. Contrary to opinion, this was paid for by the Pakistan government.
With a plate in her skull and a cochlear implant for her damaged left ear, Malala continues to speak out on the importance of education. Nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, she was awarded the prize in 2014.
Shared with another children’s rights activist, the Indian child rights campaigner Kailash Satyarthi, 17-year-old Malala became the youngest winner of the prestigious award.
Her memoir was published in October 2013. Co-written with Christina Lamb OBE, it is called I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.
As a passionate advocate for children’s and women’s education, Malala may not describe herself as a feminist, but she has become the face of an international movement for a better world future. This includes her own mother, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, who in 2014 learned to read and write.