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14-year-old emerges as role model for Pakistani girls
She spoke out against Taliban when few dared
By Javed Aziz Khan
PESHAWAR – When Malala Yusafzai, then 11, started blogging against the Taliban under the pen name of Gul Makai in February 2009, she didn’t know her writing would earn her international fame and make her a role model for other Pakistani girls.
Her blogging on the BBC Urdu site was dangerous, and she was forced to stop after only a week when her family fled Swat. But the risk paid off when a Dutch organisation, KidsRights, recognised her bravery and leadership by nominating her for the International Children's Peace Prize in late October.
“I was so excited when I learned about my nomination. ... I want to bring laurels for my country as well as for the Pashtun nation in the future,” Malala, now an 8th-grader at a private school in Mingora, Swat, said.
The prize ultimately went to a disabled 17-year-old South African girl, Michaela Mycroft, but Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani awarded Malala the Pakistani National Peace Prize November 24, making her the first child to be so honoured. Gilani also ordered the cabinet to give the award annually to deserving children.
Gilani announced a Rs. 500,000 (US $5,700) cash prize for Malala – an amount that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti matched.
“The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government appreciates the bravery of Malala in the fight against terrorism,” Hoti said.
Now 14, Malala plans an active role in Pakistani politics after she completes her higher education. She has already started her journey by being elected speaker of the Children’s Assembly, a forum organised by UNICEF and the Khpal Kor Foundation, a non-governmental organisation.
“I want to become an honest, committed and hard-working politician as our country badly needs such political leaders,” she said. Awards such as the ones she won from the government will encourage more girls to contribute to society, Malala said. “It was not easy to speak at a time when the Taliban were in power, but I decided to speak louder for the rights of girls,” she said.
“This little voice chose to speak against barbarism at a time when stronger voices preferred to stay quiet,” Delawar Jan, a journalist covering Malakand Division, said.
However, since she is now a public figure and role model for youth, many are becoming concerned for her safety in Swat, where militants claim they are re-emerging.
During their two-year reign of terror in Swat, the Taliban bombed more than 400 schools, banned girls from attending classes and publicly flogged women for minor crimes. They also banned teachers from educating girls in Swat and the rest of Malakand Division.
KidsRights praises Malala
“Malala is a brave ... girl from Pakistan who fights for the right for education, especially for girls. During extreme Talibanisation in the Swat Valley, where she lives (from 2003-2009), this was prohibited,” KidsRights’ website said.
“When the Taliban banned girls (sic) education, she raised her voice through the national and international media,” the website continued. “She became an inspiring icon for the right of children – and in particular that of girls – to education. All this happened when she was only 11 years old. She wrote a blog for the BBC Urdu during the most dangerous period of Taliban rule and volunteered to be on two documentaries by the New York Times.”
Nominated for the Children's Peace Prize, Malala and four other nominees beat 93 contestants from 42 countries to become finalists.
Malala committed to education
“In Pashtun history, the name of Malala is the symbol of sacrifice. She is a brave girl who wrote against terrorists when prominent writers were silent,” said Mian Iftikhar Hussain, KP information minister. “May we have many more Malala-like girls.”
Malala was not even a teenager in February 2009 when the Taliban banned girls’ schooling in Swat and the rest of Malakand. But she was committed to continuing her education.
“I was so scared while going to school. ... They (the Taliban) say that they are avenging the (troops’) operation against the Jamia Hafsa (madrassa) and Lal Masjid (Red Mosque in Islamabad), but what is our (students’) fault in this?” she blogged for BBC Urdu on February 21, 2009.
“Since peace has returned to Swat, we want the destroyed educational institutions to be reconstructed so all those deprived of the education or others taking their classes in tents could get their schools back,” Malala said.
“I have to get an education at all costs, even if I don’t find any place to sit,” the young girl vowed in a local TV video aired February 18, 2009.
Malala's determination to get an education extends to all young girls.
“I want all the girls to get a higher education to play their role in the society,” she said. “The government should establish more schools and colleges for the females.”
After a week, Gul Makai stopped posting blog entries when she and her family fled Swat. They lived for three months in Shangla, after a long journey through Nowshera, Haripur and Mansehra.
Father inspired Malala
Ziauddin Yusafzai, the proud father of Malala, who runs a private school and college in Mingora, was the real source of inspiration for Malala. He not only allowed his daughter to go for education but also encouraged her to venture out of the house.
“I am thankful to the prime minister and Chief Minister Hoti for acknowledging the contribution of Malala. She is not only my daughter, but she is the daughter of the nation,” said Ziauddin, who, overriding opposition from many of his relatives and neighbours, encouraged Malala at every stage.
Despite some concerns for her safety, Malala is continuing to campaign for the right of girls to be educated, and is calling to close the gap between regular schools and madrassas.
“There is a huge gap between the regular schools and seminaries,” she told a privately owned TV channel. “The government needs to take steps so the regular modern education would also be imparted to the students of seminaries to bring them in the mainstream.”
Militants misused Islam’s good name for their own agenda, she asserted.
“The people of Swat love Islam; that is why they were deceived by the militants,” she said, demanding punishment for the leadership of the Swat militants who plunged the area into years of misery.