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Education and peace activist Malala Yousafzai became a household name because of her vocal activism around the education of girls in her hometown in Pakistan. In 2012, at only 15 years old, she was shot by members of the Taliban for her work. Malala survived the attack and has since become an internationally known advocate and the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Today, Malala continues raising her voice at every turn to draw attention to the plight of girls around the world and to advocate for peace “in every home, every street, every village, every country.”
Zainab Salbi is best known as an international humanitarian, journalist and author. After decades of working in the shadow of violent conflict, Salbi has emerged as a leading advocate for unity at a time of deepening divides. She is the author of Between Two Worlds – Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam, The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope, If you Knew Me You Would Care, and her latest, Freedom Is an Inside Job: Owning Our Darkness and Our Light to Heal Ourselves and the World. She is also the founder of Women For Women International.
ZAINAB SALBI Once upon a time, there was a girl who thought every child should have the chance to learn. Her name is Malala.
SALBI Malala’s family lived in a small house in the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan, where rivers flowed crystal clear and mountains jutted up along the horizon.
Malala’s father Ziauddin was a school principal in the city of Mingora. As a little girl, Malala often stood in front of empty classrooms pretending to teach. When she was old enough, she proudly put on a white-and-blue uniform and headed to school herself.
But in the 2000s, a new, strict political group called the Taliban started to take over Malala’s city. They said many things were wrong, like music, movies, dancing—and girls’ schools.
Malala was worried that they would close HER school. So, each night when she went to bed, she prayed: “Please, God, tell me what to do. I’m a small girl, but maybe you have a small job for me?”
Little did Malala know, her small voice would grow loud and strong—and would one day, echo around the world.
Salbi I’m Zainab Salbi. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode: The education activist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Malala Yousafzai.
When Malala was growing up, she loved pizza, the color pink, and her two younger brothers—even though they fought all the time.
More than anything, though, Malala loved school.
She read stacks of books. She gave speeches in class and scribbled out answers to math problems. Her bedroom wall was lined with glimmering trophies celebrating her achievements.
Malala wanted to be a doctor, and she knew that required a lot of studying.
So, in 2007, when the Taliban took over her hometown of Mingora, Malala became very afraid. In other places, the Taliban had blown up girls’ schools to keep girls from studying. They also attacked people who said anything against them.
Then, in December 2008, the thing Malala feared came true: the Taliban said all girls’ schools in Mingora had to close the next month.
Malala’s heart ached. How could she ever become a doctor if she didn’t go to school?
SALBI So, at eleven years old, Malala decided to tell her story.
Malala’s parents worried about her safety, but her father was convinced—even the Taliban wouldn’t hurt a child.
Malala spoke to local newspapers and television stations. In the days before her school closed, she even wrote a secret diary for the BBC, a news station in the United Kingdom.
Soon, people across the world read about Malala and the dangerous things happening in Swat.
But even though Malala’s words rang out around the world, she couldn’t keep trouble from coming to Mingora.
In 2009 the Pakistani government brought their troops to the city to fight the Taliban. Malala often went to sleep to the cracking sounds of gunfire and the resounding booms of shelling. But eventually, the Pakistani Army pushed the Taliban out of her town.
When the dust settled, slowly, things started to return to normal.
And most importantly, Malala went back to school.
SALBI Within a few years after this conflict, safety seemed to have returned to Mingora’s streets.
The city’s winding roads buzzed with scooters and rickshaws. Children played cricket outside. Shopkeepers reopened their businesses, and Malala’s mother Toor Pekai was no longer afraid of going to the market alone.
Malala was 15 years old. She laughed and gossiped with her friends, and she studied hard every night.
But even though the Taliban had retreated from Mingora, their shadow hung over the city like a veil.
Malala continued to speak out about girls’ education and working toward peace. Ziauddin, spoke out, too. Because of this, he sometimes received threatening notes.
Then, one day, on the Internet, Ziauddin found something that made his heart leap into his throat: The Taliban had threatened Malala’s life.
“Maybe we should stop our campaigning for a while,” Ziauddin told Malala, tears welling up in his eyes.
But Malala shook her head. Something big had grown up inside her—a powerful force, a calling that made her fearless.
She remembered how her father had always stood up for his beliefs—even in the worst days of the Taliban’s presence.
Malala summoned some of her father’s courage as she looked steadily back at him.
“Aba, you were the one who said if we believe in something greater than our lives, then our voices will only multiply, even if we are dead,” she said. “We can’t stop now.”
Later, though, she wondered what she would do if someone from the Taliban attacked her. She imagined smacking him with her shoe.
But if she used violence, she realized, she would be just like him.
You must not treat others with cruelty, she told herself. You must fight them with peace.
SALBI A few months later, Malala bounced along the streets of Mingora as she rode the bus home from school. She laughed and sang and chatted with the other girls.
Suddenly, the bus stopped, and two men with guns climbed aboard.
“Who is Malala?” one of the men asked gruffly.
Some of the girls glanced in Malala’s direction.
Three loud cracks splintered the air.
Malala’s world went black.
SALBI When Malala awoke, she didn’t know where she was. She didn’t know how long she had been asleep.
The world around her looked blurry, and when the strangers in her room talked to her—some in English, and some in her own language of Urdu—it was like they were speaking from the end of a faraway tunnel.
Malala had a tube in her throat, and when she moved her head, sharp pains shot across her brain. She suddenly realized she was in a hospital.
She tried to talk to the nurses and doctors but couldn’t because of the tube in her throat. A nurse wrote the alphabet out on a piece of paper, and pointing to each letter, Malala spelled out, Father? and Country?
The doctor said she was in Birmingham, England. And her father was safe in Pakistan. Her family would visit soon.
Over the following days, Malala pieced together what had happened: The two men on the bus were part of the Taliban. They had heard of Malala’s efforts to promote girls’ education. They had shot her. She had almost died.
Malala had been taken to multiple hospitals in Pakistan before she was finally flown to a hospital in Birmingham that specialized in the care she needed.
The Pakistan government was paying for it, they told her.
She couldn’t believe her ears. What is going on? she wondered. How does the Pakistan government even know what happened to me?
SALBI But it wasn’t just the Pakistani government that knew Malala’s story now.
News of her shooting had spread across the globe. And as Malala recovered, staff at the hospital handed her thousands of letters from people around the world!
Celebrities tweeted their hope for Malala’s recovery. When Malala’s family arrived, the president of Pakistan visited them there at the hospital. And the Secretary General of the United Nations, an important international organization, said Malala’s next birthday, July 12, 2013, would be Malala Day at the U.N.
Malala was amazed to receive so much support. She couldn’t wait to go home and tell her best friend she had gotten messages from famous American movie stars!
SALBI But Malala couldn’t go home just yet. She still had trouble moving the muscles in her face. She couldn’t hear well in her left ear. The doctors told her she needed more surgeries.
Even though her family was now with her, Birmingham felt strange. The skies were gray, and the days were chilly.
Malala missed Mingora. She missed the noise and laughter of the friends and family who used to gather in their home. She missed watching the sunset paint the horizon into bold oranges and purples. Most of all, though, she missed her friends.
After a few more operations, Malala was finally able to hear again, and she could almost smile like she used to.
The president of Pakistan gave Ziauddin a special government job in Birmingham. Malala was grateful, but her gratitude was bittersweet.
She knew then they couldn’t go home—not for a long, long time.
It just wasn’t safe anymore.
SALBI Nine months after the shooting, on her sixteenth birthday, Malala stepped up to a podium in the U.N. Headquarters in New York City dressed in her favorite pink outfit and headscarf. The room was packed with diplomats and almost 1,000 youth activists from around the world.
As Malala spoke, the audience hung on her every word.
“Malala Day is not my day,” she said. “Today is the day of every woman, every boy, and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.”
Malala told the story of what happened nine months before.
“They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed,” she said. “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.”
When Malala finished, the room erupted in applause. And in the front row, her father beamed at her, and her mother wiped tears from her eyes.
As Malala took her seat, she remembered all the prayers she’d said as a child—that she could make the world a better place, do something to help, and even to grow taller.
Smiling, Malala realized God had answered her prayers. She’d maybe only grown an inch, but she felt as tall as the sky.
SALBI In the months and years that followed her speech at the U.N., Malala’s words continued to resonate across the globe. And slowly, she and her family made their small brick house in Birmingham into their new home.
Malala went to school like other girls in her neighborhood. She enjoyed her classes, but sometimes, it was hard to understand her new friends’ jokes.
In a lot of ways, she wasn’t like the other girls at her school. She was busy starting a new charity with her father called The Malala Fund, which helps girls and children from all over the world go to school.
And she criss-crossed the globe making speeches, giving interviews, and advocating for girls’ rights and world peace. She even wrote a book!
One day, in 2014, Malala was in the middle of chemistry class when the deputy head teacher called her into the hallway.
Am I in trouble? she wondered.
The deputy head teacher told Malala some exciting news: Malala had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a very serious award given to people who make the world a better place.
At 17, Malala was the youngest person ever to receive it!
Malala’s eyes widened in astonishment. The school made an impromptu assembly in Malala’s honor, where Malala made a brief speech.
And then Malala went right back to class!
SALBI Now a university graduate, Malala continues to raise her voice, advocating for “education for every boy and every girl in the world” and “peace in every home, every street, every village, every country.”
Still, she says she’s a girl like any other: She likes pop music, she fights with her brothers, she hates waking up early in the mornings, and she still loves the color pink.
And just like her, Malala believes each of us can make a difference—no matter where we come from, or how ordinary or extraordinary we think we might be.
As she said in her speech at the U.N.: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Executive Producers are Jes Wolfe and Katie Sprenger.
This episode was produced by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner, who also did sound design and mixing. Corinne Peterson is Production Manager.
This episode was written by Alexis Stratton. Proofread by Ariana Rosas. It was narrated by me, Zainab Salbi. You can get to know me better on Thursday’s episode!
Sound design and original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. For more, visit Rebel Girls dot com. Until next time, stay rebel!