SWAT / UNITED NATIONS: Nine months after a Taliban gunman put a bullet in her head in the belief that he was ending the teenager’s crusade for girls’ education in Swat district, Malala Yousafzai made a reappearance at a platform bigger than she could have ever imagined. Since then, both Malala and her campaign have helped people stand up to the obscurantist ideology of the Taliban.
Malala Yousafzai, who turned 16 on Friday, marked her birthday with an emotional speech at the United Nations in which she said education could change the world.
“Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution,” a confident Malala said to cheers from the podium.
Wearing a pink head scarf, Malala told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and nearly 1,000 students from around the world attending a Youth Assembly at UN headquarters in New York that education was the only way to improve lives.
Malala was targeted by the Taliban for her campaign against their efforts to deny women education. “They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed and out of that silence came thousands of voices,” she said.
“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,” Malala said.
“The extremists were and they are afraid of books and pens, the power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women,” Malala said. “When we were in Swat … we realised the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.”
She wore a white shawl draped around her shoulders that had belonged to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated during a 2007 election rally weeks after she returned to Pakistan from years in self-imposed exile.
“I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child,” she said.
“I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists,” she said. “I do not even hate the Talib [singular of Taliban] who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him.”
Malala presented Ban with a petition signed by some 4 million people in support of 57 million children around the world who are not able to go to school. It demanded that world leaders fund new teachers, schools and books and end child labour, marriage and trafficking.
Ban said that the United Nations was committed to a target of getting all children in school by the end of 2015.
“No child should have to die for going to school. Nowhere should teachers fear to teach or children fear to learn. Together, we can change this picture,” he said. “Together, let us follow the lead of this brave young girl, Malala.”
UN Special Envoy for Global Education, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, said Friday’s event was not just a celebration of Malala’s birthday and of her recovery, but of her vision.
He invoked “her dream that nothing, no political indifference, no government inaction, no intimidation, no threats, no assassin’s bullets should ever deny the right of every single child … to be able to go to school.”
Brown described Malala’s recovery from the attack as a miracle. The teenager was treated in Pakistan before the United Arab Emirates provided an air ambulance to fly her to Britain, where doctors mended parts of her skull with a titanium plate.
Unable to safely return to Pakistan, Malala enrolled in a school in Birmingham, England in March.
In Malala’s hometown of Swat, the secular Awami National Party and civil society members organized a walk to mark her 16th birthday, which has been declared World Malala Day.
“Today, we want to send across a message to the whole world that the Pakhtun are a peace-loving nation. Malala fought for girls’ education. The people of Swat feel honoured that Malala Day is observed globally,” said ANP District President Sher Shah Khan in his address to the participants.
Local lawmaker Syed Jaffar Shah said Malala was inspired by Bacha Khan, the grandfather of ANP chief Asfandyar Wali, and his philosophy of non-violence. “Malala alone strove to spread awareness about women’s rights at a time when such things were considered a taboo,” Shah added.
You can view the slideshow pictures of Malala here
Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th, 2013.