|Photo credit: Christopher Furlong|
The Taliban didn’t know what it was up against when it picked a fight with Malala Yousafzai.
Two years ago, the then 15-year-old native of northwest Pakistan was shot in the head by members the Muslim extremist group while on a bus to school because of her advocacy for education and equal rights for women.
There was one problem with this brutal plan. She didn’t die from this act of extreme violence. In fact, her recovery has been described as miraculous. Nor did she and her family cower from her attackers, despite additional calls for her death.
Now at the age of 17 living in Birmingham, England, Malala’s advocacy for women and for education is now an international movement and she is its star. The youngest person to ever receive a Nobel Peace Prize, she now commands audiences with world leaders and at events around the world. Every public appearance is an act of defiance, striking a blow against the religious extremist group.
On October 21, Malala was in Philadelphia to receive The Liberty Medal, presented annually to those who "strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over." Earlier in the day, she was a speaker at the Forbes Under 30 Summit, also in Philadelphia. This is where I had a chance to see her speak to a crowd of young entrepreneurs.
Thanksgiving Day is a time when we give thanks for what we have. I give thanks for the access my job allows me to listen to someone with the courage of Malala Yousafzai.
Being interviewed by Ronan Farrow of MSNBC, Malala describes her life as being divided between the normal routines of home and school and her advocacy for education and for women’s rights, appearing remarkably grounded when she discusses life at home and at school and even displaying a sly smile when discussing her relationship with her two brothers. She also hinted at very ambitious plans for her future.
“When I go outside I look 27 or 30 but when I go home I look 10 or 12, so at home I’m enjoying my time and fighting with my brothers, which is also quite nice sometimes. I try to tease them and annoy them. At home things are quite normal. I do my homework. I don’t feel like I am a global figure. When I go outside this is a role that I have right now speaking for girls’ education and for the education of every child. It’s not something that has been given to me by someone. It is what I have decided and it is what I’ve chosen for myself, so I’m happy with it. Malala, when she is home and she is in school she is a different person who has to obey her teachers. Here is the adult Malala, so these are two different parts of my life and I’m happy with that.”
There are also times when her two worlds intersect. For example, she was in chemistry class when she learned she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
“They called an assembly at school. It was the first time I spoke on the stage at my school and I was so nervous,” she said. “I was not nervous at the UN. Not nervous here. But I was nervous at the school because the teachers were there and so were the students…. I told them that you are very lucky because you have such a great school. You have all the facilities. You have a science lab, a computer lab, you have wonderful teachers, you have good classrooms and chairs and tables, everything. But there are schools in some parts of the world where children do not have these facilities and some children do not have schools at all so you should be thankful that you have all these facilities and you are getting a quality education. It was a good opportunity to speak to my friends and speak to my teachers and thank all of them so I was very happy.”
She says at home or school she gets no special treatment. She also expresses thanks that her teachers challenge her at school.
“They treat me like a normal student which is good in some ways and not good in some ways,” she said. “When I got the Nobel peace prize I was very busy with phone calls coming in and I couldn’t finish my English homework. So the next day my teacher asked me, ‘Where’s your homework?’ I said, ‘Miss I won the Nobel Peace Prize and I was quite busy and she replied ‘So what?’ and I said I will do it tomorrow.”
But when she talks about her advocacy, her resolve is apparent.
“I fight for women’s rights and I believe everyone has equal rights as men have because why should there be a difference? … We have to change this idea that women are only suppose to work in the house not only just cooking and cleaning but she also has the ability to go outside and be in business, be a doctor, a teacher, an engineer. She should have a job as equally as men and she should be treated equally as men are. So I think equal treatment is very important and this is what Islam teaches.”
She jokes about the irony in her life of being a worldwide advocate for education and not being able to convince her brothers to study more.
“When I say to my younger brother are you doing your homework? Stop playing on the computer, he tells me to get lost,” she said. “I always tell them that you should focus on your education because when I go outside I tell every child that education is very important to you so at home I have two brothers who are not doing their homework and the younger is cheeky as well.”
She describes her life as being similar to a classic story.
“I consider my story like a movie where in the beginning I have a happy life living a quality life in happiness and then a villain comes but in the end the villain loses and the hero wins and there’s a happy ending.”
When talking to world leaders she isn’t intimidated at all and focuses on keeping her message simple.
“I have met a lot of people who are well known like presidents and prime ministers and I think it’s very important to reach out to those people and to ask them to contribute to education and make it very important and make it their top priority.”
She continued, “When I was in Pakistan, sometimes people ask me what do you say to the prime minister? And I say make sure every child goes to school but I think the prime minister wouldn’t be able to do it so I’m not going request the prime ministers anymore and when I grow up I’ll become a prime minister and I’ll bring the change.”
You can view video excerpts of Malala’s talk at the Forbes website.
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