The Power of One Voice
Sometimes the most powerful voice comes from where you’d least expect it.
Certainly not from a 14-year-old Pakistani girl, named Malala Yousazai.
Now age 17, the little girl known to creeds and colors all over the world simply as “Malala” has grown up some, her maturity taking place very much in front of the camera as tens and perhaps even hundreds of millions of people — young and old, male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim — have watched with intrigue and admiration. She’s become a global champion of human rights and a public advocate for female education, particularly in countries and societies where such virtues not only aren’t guaranteed but even risk personal endangerment.
Malala is perhaps best known to many of us living in the West for the unfathomable personal tragedy she suffered three years ago near her home in Pakistan. Known for speaking out publicly in her fractured community while undergoing constant death threats from the ghastly Taliban despite being barely into her early adolescence, Malala was hunted down and shot in the head by one of the fanatical henchmen of the savage group, which remains intent on silencing all voices speaking out on behalf of educating girls. Little could anyone have predicted then that Malala would not only survive the crushing foreign intrusion into the left side of her skull that left her partially paralyzed and in need of years of rehabilitative treatment. Worse for them and far better for all of us, and especially for young women everywhere, Malala became an international symbol of opposition, a rallying point, and an astounding example of personal courage and conviction against countless threats and a future quite likely filled with potential danger wherever she travels.
Indeed, Malala must live with the constant fear the next word she utters could very well be her last. And so, she’s chosen to make what she says count. Every word, every thought, every opportunity is potentially one more eager listener converted to the cause, another young girl who sees herself in Malala’s struggle willing to go forward and help carry the torch.
Too idealistic perhaps? Maybe. Read on.
Malala’s political and social activism began early. She started writing her own blog at the age of 11, which was quickly picked up by the BBC online worldwide which unknowingly had discovered a powerfully articulate voice in the least likely of places. Malala’s home, in the Swat Valley of northwest Pakistan, located about 100 miles from the capital Islamabad, was a crossroads of influences between militant fundamentalists and modernist reformers. The region has gradually slid into the abyss of instability as the Taliban has increasingly become stronger, largely through oppression and bloody intimidation. The band of lunatics openly uses fear and assassination to silence critics.
One of the first acts of Taliban’s leaders was an open call for the total shutdown of education for girls. Schools for girls were fire bombed and most were eventually forced to close down. Parents pulled their girls about of classes for fear of what might happen. When Malala openly spoke out against repression, she was targeted and shot.
Malala’s fate rested in the hands of some very capable doctors in Birmingham, UK. When they learned of her condition, she was airlifted to England, where she underwent several operations. Since then, faced with dangers back in their homeland, Malala’s family has relocated to the UK. Next time you hear about how horrible all the Muslim immigrants are, one would be mindful to consider the story of Malala.
Unfazed by the tragedy, she continued to write her blog, although she needed some help given her medical condition. People around the world wanted to know more about this amazing young girl. And so her biography, “I am Malala” was soon released, translated into 35 languages, which became an international best-seller. Malala traveled everywhere, especially to places where young women needed a champion and a voice. She went to Nigeria and confronted Boko Haram. She met with Nigeria’s president and demanded what he was doing to stand up to Islamic extremism. She went into war zones and visited refugee camps in Syria. She met everyone from Queen Elizabeth to U-2’s Bono. She even demanded why the U.S. is using drones in Pakistan when she met President Obama last year at the White House.
In 2014, Malala Yousafzai became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize ever in history. That exalted honor elevated her international platform and prestige even higher. After that, she spoke in front of delegates at the United Nations, demanding that the fundamental rights to education for all females be protected. No doubt, Malala’s epic struggle is burdensome and won’t be solved in years nor even decades. But one look at the tearfully joyous and hopeful expressions of those she speaks to with such honesty and humanity, her face still slightly contorted by a bullet of persecution, gives us hope that her message will spread beyond one lone, powerful voice.
The film “He Named Me Malala” has just been released and is now in theaters everywhere, which I saw this past weekend and have thought about many times since. The documentary follows Malala and her father around the world and tells her amazing story in a series of flashbacks. Surprisingly, despite the brutally violent act that propelled her into our collective consciousness, “He Named Me Malala” is astoundingly uplifting. The best scenes aren’t just when we listen to her speak to classrooms and visit refugees. It’s when she’s Malala, the 17-year-old high school girl, interested in dating boys, but still forbidden from cultural practices though by her society to be scandalous. Even Malala, now rescued and a worldwide celebrity living in England, still cannot escape the bondage of religious restriction on her life.
If, and when, good ultimately triumphs over evil and religious dogmatism is eradicated such victory will not come due to bombings nor war nor invasion nor occupations nor any of the foolish choices made by warmongers and profiteers that perpetuate mutual madness and self destruction. Transformation will come from education and activism, one lonely voice at a time.
The world needs more Malalas. Hundreds more. Thousands more. Millions more. Until there many are more Malalas in the world in countries where they are needed most, there will be no chance for peace. Not as long as fundamentalist religious fanatics parade the streets with machine guns and threaten to shoot young girls in the face for dare trying to learn how to read and write.
There will only be perpetual ignorance, leading to violence, leading to oppression and mass misery.
That is why, when Malala speaks, we must all listen.