Profile: Malala Yousafzai

Respected Pakistani rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has fought to promote schooling for girls.

Yousafzai was shot by Taliban fighters in 2012 but miraculously survived [AP]

Malala Yousafzai is a widely respected Pakistani rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who has fought to promote education for girls – a struggle that resulted in the Taliban attempting to take her life in 2012.

Raised in the town of Mingora, in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Yousafzai came to prominence as a teenager in 2009, when the valley was under the control of the local chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The TTP-Swat, under then-chief Mullah Fazlullah, enforced a strict interpretation of Islam in the valley, ruling with an iron fist. One of its many edicts enforced a complete ban on women’s education.

Between 2007 and 2011, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat, led by Maulana Fazlullah, destroyed more than 400 schools in the valley, many of them providing education for girls.

In January 2009, Yousafzai began to keep a diary for the BBC’s Urdu service, in which she detailed how she had been affected by the Taliban’s rule, and what life was like for her and her peers under them. She wrote then under the pen name “Gul Makai”, the name of the heroine from a local Pashtun folk tale.

The diary entries, published online, chronicled three months of life under the Taliban, describing how girls were “not to wear colourful clothing as the [Taliban] would object to it”, or about the constant sound of artillery fire that punctuated Swat’s nights in those tumultuous years.

The then 11-year-old girl repeatedly expressed her desire to return to school, and her sadness that many of her friends’ families were moving away to other provinces so that their daughters could safely attend school.

“I dreamt of a country where education would prevail,” she later told the BBC after the Taliban were driven out of Swat.

In 2011, she received Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize (which was subsequently renamed in her honour), and was nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the prestigious International Children’s Peace Prize.

Her outspoken nature led to threats against her and her father, a prominent local educationalist, and on October 9, 2012, years after they had been driven out of the valley, the TTP followed through on its words.

Two attackers approached Yousafzai’s school van, shooting her in the head and badly wounding Kainat Riaz, a fellow classmate. Both survived, but were severely wounded. Malala was airlifted first to Rawalpindi and then to Birmingham, in the UK, where she underwent multiple surgeries before making a complete recovery.

“She is a Western-minded girl. She always speaks against us. We will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesperson for the TTP, told the AFP news agency after Yousafzai’s shooting.

‘They thought the bullets would silence us’

Malala takes education plea to the UN

Since the shooting, Yousafzai has continued to live in Birmingham with her family, due to continuing threats against their lives, and has ramped up her activism for children’s right to education, especially in conflict zones such as her native Pakistan and, among other places, Nigeria.

In 2013, Yousafzai founded the Malala Fund, a non-governmental organisation that works with governments and organisations around the world to provide girls with access to education.

In a defiant speech at the United Nations that year, her first public appearance since the shooting, she vowed to continue her work and to not be intimidated by the threats against her and other schoolchildren.

“On 9 October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too,” she told the UN General Assembly. “They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”

Yousafzai received a standing ovation, and her Fund has been pursuing projects in Pakistan, Jordan, Kenya and Nigeria in subsequent months.

On October 10, 2014, the Nobel Prize committee jointly awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian rights and labour activist, saying that both had been recognised “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”.

At 17, Yousufzai become the youngest ever person to be awarded the prestigious prize.

“Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzay [sic] has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations. This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle she has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education,” the announcement read.

Yousafzai became the second Pakistani to win the prize, after pioneering scientist Abdus Salam jointly won the Physics Prize in 1979. Like Salam, who belonged to the persecuted minority Ahmadiyya sect, Yousafzai has been much vilified by certain quarters in Pakistan, who term her rise to prominence “a conspiracy” and are suspicious of what is described as her “closeness” to the West.

As for the men responsible for shooting her? In September 2014, the Pakistani military said that it had apprehended all 10 men involved in the attack. Mullah Fazlullah, the man who led the TTP-Swat and ruled over the valley in those tumultuous years, meanwhile, has risen to become the chief of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan countrywide.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim