‘There Are Thousands of Malalas': What Pakistan’s Teenage Activist Has Already Won

She missed out on this year's Nobel Peace Prize, but Malala Yousafzai has already inspired a generation of Pakistani schoolgirls.

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Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

Girls pray before starting classes at a school in Islamabad, on Oct. 11, 2013.

When the news came that Malala Yousafzai missed out on the Nobel Prize for Peace, there were groans of disappointment across Pakistan. In the lead up to the announcement, Pakistan’s lively news channels had been running clips of her speeches, and keenly promoting the cause of education—a cause for which Malala was infamously shot and nearly killed by a Taliban gunman last year. In the corner of the TV screens, there was a clock ticking down the hours, minutes, and seconds left until they found out. Until the last moment, groups of people were raising cupped hands in prayer, hoping that Malala would win.

But, while the Nobel committee looked elsewhere, 16-year-old Malala has already left a lasting mark on the world, her nation and perhaps the most important constituency yet—fellow schoolgirls.

Ask Wajiha Batool, a schoolgirl in Islamabad just slightly younger than Malala. When she heard of the Taliban’s attempt to kill Malala, it struck very close to home. As a Pakistani schoolgirl, she could closely identify with the victim. And in the year that has passed since the shooting, she has eagerly followed Malala’s defiant campaign for education. A few days ago, she and her classmates watched Malala being interviewed by the BBC on the anniversary of the attack. “When we saw Malala, we were very happy,” says Wajiha, 15, flanked by fellow 10th grade students at the Islamabad Model School for Girls, one of the largest, oldest and best-performing government schools in Pakistan’s capital. “She’s a source of pride for us.”

What particularly inspired Wajiha and her friends was the precocious schoolgirl from the militancy-ravaged Swat Valley’s courage. “She was so brave. She became a wall in front of terrorism.” Three of her classmates – all studying sciences with a view to becoming doctors, engineers, and psychologists – nod vigorously. Much like Malala, they are almost intimidatingly confident, speaking rapidly and forcefully about their enthusiasm for education in both English and Urdu.

Ever since Malala was catapulted to global celebrity, a large swathe of Pakistani public opinion grew suspicious of her fame. The Pakistani Taliban, of course, never ceased their death threats, their campaign of hate against her. After the Nobel was awarded on Friday, a Taliban spokesman even praised the committee “for not selecting this immature girl for such a famous award.” But criticism came from less roguish corners as well. Lurid conspiracy theories, often prevalent on the internet, alleged that she hadn’t even been shot. That she was making it all up in search of fame, or was being used by shadowy intelligence agencies for some unexplained purpose. But as Wajiha and her friends wait to hear news of whether Malala has won the Nobel Prize for Peace, they say they suffer no such illusions.

“There’s not just Malala,” says Azka Yamin, a 14 year-old schoolgirl who says she devours novels and loves debating competitions. “There are thousands like her.” Azka says that she has a friend from the Tirah Valley, near Pakistan’s tribal areas, whose family said she couldn’t pursue her education. “When I heard her brother say, ‘What are you going to do with education?’ I wanted to slap him!” she says, almost trembling with rage.

Azka has a kindred contempt for the Taliban. “These people aren’t Muslims,” she says. “How dare they stop girls from getting an education? Where in the Quran does Allah says girls can’t get an education?” she asks indignantly. The group of schoolgirls all look forward to lengthy careers. “We’re not going to stop working after we get married like some women do,” says Sharmeen Farooq, another 14-year-old. But they are the lucky ones.

In Pakistan, just over half of all girls make it to a primary school classroom. Only 12% make it to secondary school. “There are 25 million Pakistani children out of school,” says Mosharraf Zaidi, campaign director of Alif Ailaan, an education advocacy group. “Of those kids out of school, 61% are girls.” Given the country’s population growth, adds Zaidi, Pakistan will be confronted with at least 60 million children from the next generation growing up with illiterate mothers. Barriers to education include, in some parts of the country, a cultural hostility to women becoming educated, more independent, and entering the world of work. The state doesn’t help in this regard: in Malala’s district of Swat, there are only half as many girls’ schools as boys’ schools.

Even if the children make it to the classroom, they face steep odds. Pakistan ranks among the lowest eight countries in the world in terms of education spending – a figure the looks like a rounding error when compared to the bloated military budget. Schools are often poorly maintained, lacking basic resources. And one of the biggest problems facing the education sector is that many teachers play truant, often not turning up.

There are still hopes that the mere fact that Malala was nominated can push education to the forefront of Pakistan’s development agenda. “The Peace Prize would have been a good symbol,” says Zaidi, the education advocate, “but Malala’s voice is still deeply resonant.” At the school, Azka says that the moment shouldn’t be wasted. “We shouldn’t just be satisfied with a nomination or a prize,” she says. “We need to use this moment to do more for girls’ education in Pakistan. There are thousands of Malalas in Pakistan.”

208 comments
Ekki Pitang
Ekki Pitang

oh wait, bc she pissed of the Taliban and raised awareness in the Western world? Because the Taliban still targets her and what she represents? That's not a misguided hatred at ALL

Denn Lim
Denn Lim

inspiring story. not everyone has the courage like hers.

Shila Rossi
Shila Rossi

The entire world is complicit in this tragedy that this girl represents...we are all answerable

Leslie Cardinell
Leslie Cardinell

A women of courage and determination who inspires others to be the best that they can be.

angrysexmachine69
angrysexmachine69

Can someone PLEASE tell her to lose the filthy Indian accent...She ain't Indian or Asian.

angrysexmachine69
angrysexmachine69

Man, for a $3,000,000 dollar book deal, I'd take a bullet in the head!

Fahd Sherif
Fahd Sherif

Warning Guerrilla war inside Cairo airport in Egypt during the chase fans of Ahly Club and passenger escape after firing cartridge and live bullets inside the old airport of crisis situation and the injuries and deaths and the military coup government insists on shooting And hang a man carrying a U.S. citizen at a police station in Ismailia today for violating the emergency law

Eduardo Schefelbanis Schefelbanis
Eduardo Schefelbanis Schefelbanis

A educação e a Saúde contra a corrupção no Brasil e a guerra cibernética e as espionagens contra os políticos corruptos, burguesia e contra os poderes !

Ekki Pitang
Ekki Pitang

Her interview on the daily show had me crying- this girl is the TRUTH

Andrew 'Andy' Thomas
Andrew 'Andy' Thomas

if she'd be one of the hundreds of children killed or injured in drone strikes no one would notice or pay her any attention

Sachin Parab
Sachin Parab

She is not eligible for Nobel peace prize at this moment....She need to work more....All the best

Fc Loaisiga
Fc Loaisiga

She is a brave lady, she has and will continue to inspire a generation.

Laraib Ali
Laraib Ali

moti ho gaee hai baahr ka khaa khaa k :-/

Whut Exit
Whut Exit

While she may have missed out on the Nobel Peace prize she has won the hearts and minds of the world. Her message is an inspiration ot all of us.

Iwan Yamin
Iwan Yamin

Malala's Fever. When will this end?

Tabish Dawood
Tabish Dawood

ISLAMIC ALLAH IS AN IDOL god , ALLAH AKBAR , lord OF THE KAABA , CHALLENGE TO ALL ISLAMIC WORLD , GO FIRST READ IT AFTER TEACH !!

Umar Ahmed Chauhan
Umar Ahmed Chauhan

^ where i wrote that talibans are Pioneers and they are doing good things? And by the way who the Fu*k are u to judge me that Iam Non Muslim? I just exposed malala who is doing things which are not in favour of Pakistan -_-

Kiyana Turner
Kiyana Turner

She doesn't need someone's prize to validate her! In fact, that "prize" should be trying to win her!!!!! There is a global-happening that she is heading. Do not divert attention to symbols when REAL life awaits!

Tagrid Idris
Tagrid Idris

She's inspiring alright! The weapon she was shot by was probably paid for by those who are parading her and using her to humanise their barbaric foreign policies. They have no conscience . They know no shame!

Saira Syed
Saira Syed

Kia museebat hai drama khatam he nhi ho rha

Saddam Khawaja
Saddam Khawaja

I am the young generation of pakistan and i am not impressed. -_-

Mutiu Kolade Amosa
Mutiu Kolade Amosa

Na many thing I dey see from the posting o! E don happen my brother.

Amir Af
Amir Af

. @umar Ahmed chauhan yes U are pakistani but U are not muslim .and U know That salafi is not ISLAM taliban is not ISLAM. لَهُم مِّن جَهَنَّمَ مِهَادٌ وَمِن فَوْقِهِمْ غَوَاشٍ وَكَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الظَّالِمِينَ this is your palace

Amir Af
Amir Af

. allah will say: 'this is the day the truthful shall benefit by their truthfulness. they shall live for ever in gardens underneath which rivers flow. allah is pleased with them, and they are pleased with him. that is the great winning.5.119 QURAN malala ...you have brave and beautiful soul