For Pakistani schoolgirl Malala, education is everything

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban, brought her message to Boston Saturday night. 'Education is not Eastern, neither Western,' she says. 'Education is everything.'

Jessica Rinaldi/AP
Malala Yousafzai speaks to an audience during a discussion of her book, "I am Malala" at Boston College High School Saturday in Dorchester, Mass. The Pakistani teenager, an advocate for education for girls, survived a Taliban assassination attempt last year on her way home from school.

Malala Yousafzai slipped unassumingly onto a make-shift stage, trailed by her father, and greeted with a crescendo of applause from the Boston audience.

The sixteen-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl, who was shot on her way home from lessons just over a year ago on orders from the Taliban has become the spokesperson for the millions of children worldwide who are denied the opportunity for an education, and was even a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the week before she appeared in Boston, Malala had spoken before the United Nations, appeared on Jon Stewart (leaving the commentator speechless), and urged President Obama to wage war in Pakistan with books, rather than drones.

Throughout the evening, Malala spoke with the poise of someone twice her age, though small anecdotes– about her schoolyard rivalries, and love of the American TV show "Ugly Betty"– seemed to confirm that the human rights advocate is, in fact, a teenager.

A little over a year ago, Malala's name was not well-known outside of her native Swat Valley in the northwest corner of Pakistan.

Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, had come under scrutiny from the local Taliban for opening schools for both boys and girls, and the family worried that Mr. Yousafzai, like other teachers in the region, would become a casualty of Talib ire.

Though Malala had appeared on local media outlets as an advocate for girls' education, and had ghost-written a blog on education for the BBC Urdu service, harming the young girl would be an unimaginable – and unorthodox – act of violence.

But then, on Oct. 9, 2012, a young college-aged Talib boarded Malala's bus with a .45 Colt rifle in hand.

"Who is Malala?" he asked.

Wedged between two school friends in the back of the bus, her face exposed, Malala, answered the man: "I am Malala," and was met with a bullet. The then-fifteen-year-old girl had just finished her exams.

Speaking before an audience at Boston College High School (the event was moved from the John F. Kennedy Library due to the government shutdown), Malala admitted the fear she felt living in the Taliban-controlled area.

Just before she was shot, the young teenager used to check all of the doors and rooms in her house at night to make sure that she and her family were safe. But then she realized that it would be worse to live safely in fear, than to die with principle: "We must not be afraid of death," she said.

The Taliban began encroaching into the Swat Valley in 2007– when Malala was ten – and began introducing strict sharia law into the area, slowly at first, banning music and dancing, before new restrictions made it extraordinarily uncomfortable for women to go out onto the streets alone.

Educating women and girls became a nearly impossible task, equated with Western ideology. Schools began getting blown up, and Malala and her classmates cautiously spirited themselves to class, school books hidden in the folds of their shawls.

"Education is not Eastern, neither Western. Education is everything," Malala said.  "I do not know what the Taliban would invent instead of stethoscopes, instead of thermometers. Education is every child's right."

Since Malala was shot, the Taliban has written to her, saying that she was not targeted for promoting education, but because she was against Islam. "That was the right of the Talib to send that to me, and it is my right to decide what I want to do", Malala said. She has not responded to the letter.

"I'm not asking for any support for myself, whether I'm shot or not, it doesn't matter," she said, her voice impassioned. "I want support for my cause of education, I want support for my cause of peace."

At the end of the evening, an audience member asked the young girl what her favorite book is. "The Alchemist," she replied, referencing a Brazilian novel about a boy who goes on a global trek in search of an intangible treasure he sees in his dreams.

The final question came from a teacher: What is the one thing you want people to know about Islam, he asked.

The sixteen-year-old gave a thorough, somewhat expansive answer about Islam as a religion of peace, and tolerance before politely reigning herself in. Becoming educated is the duty of all Muslims, she said, more succinctly.

A round of applause followed, and then her father added: "The very first word to the Prophet Mohammed was Aktab." Translated from Arabic, it means "read." 

And with that, Malala, and her beaming father received a standing ovation.

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