The other day I heard someone criticise Malala Yousafzai for not
speaking out against the war crimes being committed in Gaza—the hundreds
of dead children, the thousands of wounded children.
I wanted to say, “What happened to you? Why do you always wait for
‘someone’ to speak up?’ Why not you?” Admiring Malala doesn’t make us
admirable by osmosis. Emulating her is a better way.
She’s still just a little girl. Barely 17. She’s not an ordinary girl,
you might say. But what makes her extraordinary? What does she have that
has all of us falling over ourselves to fete her, to get VIP tickets to
see her, to take photos with her?
What does it take to be Malala? What does it take for a child born of a
poor family in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, in a shabby shack of two
rooms 100 miles from the capital city of Islamabad, to deliver her
message to the hallowed halls of the United Nations in New York?
What does it take for a girl to leave her homeland (described in her
book I Am Malala)—a “heavenly valley of mountains, gushing waterfalls,
crystal-clear lakes, fields of wildflowers, orchards of fruit, emerald
mines, trout-filled rivers”—to take up residence in dreary Birmingham,
and to go on punishing schedules of appearances in front of thousands of
strangers in strange countries, to be gawked at endlessly?
What does it take for a girl who, although very smart, is not a child
prodigy or an inventor or an entrepreneur, not a reality TV star, sex
symbol, or rock star, to be the youngest person ever nominated for a
Nobel Peace Prize?
Not even this: On October 9, 2012, Malala boarded her school bus in her
hometown. A gunman asked for Malala by name, then pointed a Colt 45 at
her and fired three shots. One bullet hit the left side of Malala’s
forehead, travelled under her skin the length of her face and then into
Hundreds of children are shot by the Taliban. Malala can tell you about
the 14 children who were blown up in a bus a year after the attempt at
No, what’s extraordinary about Malala is something we all have in
ourselves, something we use sparingly because most of us are craven and
unwilling to risk our lives for any cause other than ourselves: courage
and a thundering civic sense; a sense of justice; a willingness to put
necks on the line for fellow human beings.
There are people who are clamouring to see Malala here as I write. I
wonder if they care (but I know Malala will) that 400,000 of our people
in these tiny islands remain functionally illiterate? That our
“universal education” is a failure, because we don’t have teachers’
training colleges? I wonder if the people who are briefing Malala on T&T
will tell her that we spend money like water on wining soca and chutney,
and that we don’t have a literacy school for music. Will the VIPs gazing
at that famous face tell her truthfully we don’t value education? That
we can take her to monuments to calypsonians—but there are none to
statesmen, writers and scientists?
Will they tell her that while she risks her life every day so girls can
go to school, that our mothers take our girl children to “Kiddies
Carnival” and encourage four-year-old children to “wine,” to imitate
obscene fornication type movements, as part of our “culture”?
I hope the VIPs can look past her attire, stop speculating about the
bullets in her head, and remember some things about Malala. What’s
extraordinary in this age of entitlement is her parents, who gave her an
upbringing imbued with a sense of innate justice. Her father, as
passionate about education for girls as for boys, pushed her to study in
the Swat Valley where the Taliban banned girls from attending school.
Her grandfather valued ideas and books, and was an orator and imam who
encouraged Malala to learn. Her mother wanted Malala to have the
education she herself was denied.
This flame lit by her family led Malala to writing a blog for the BBC
about life under Taliban rule when she was just 11. The twinning of
justice and courage turned a small flame to a white light skimming the
Her assassination attempt struck a note with the right people. The
honours came rolling in because the world had forgotten the issue. She
reminded us: education is a tool for dignity, peace, progress.
The United Nations Special Envoy For Global Education Gordon Brown
launched a UN petition demanding all children worldwide be in school by
the end of 2015. This led to Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill.
In 2013, Malala was on the cover of Time magazine as one of the 100 most
influential people in the world. She won Pakistan’s National Youth Peace
Prize. She was tipped for the Nobel peace prize. On July 12, 2013, at
barely 16 years of age, she spoke at the UN, calling for worldwide
access to education.
I hope our Carnival culture will get past her celebrity and remember her
message: to put education, humanity and a civic sense first, and quietly
take it back to our schools, teachers, and homes.