‘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.”