Role Models & Heroes: Malala Yousafzai (2015)

By May 21, 2015 November 15th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Heroes & Role Models
The following essay on Malala Yousafazai was written by Sofia Wilson, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process  improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

Sofia Wilson
May 9, 2015

Malala Yousafzai. This is a name that would not have been familiar to me a couple of years ago. In October, 2014 Malala received the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against oppression of young people and for children’s rights to education.

Malala was born and raised in Swat Valley, in Mingora, Pakistan. Malala had a passion for school, but the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, did not want to give her the chance to realize her love for education. On October 9th, 2012, at the age of 15, the Taliban shot Malala in the head at point-blank range while she was riding the bus home from school; it’s amazing that she survived this. You might have expected that the shooting would defeat Malala, to make her hide under a rock, but what inspires me, and so many others, is that Malala continues to speak out and fight for girls and women’s rights.

At first, it was hard for me to think of a role model or hero. At the beginning of this process when I was asked if I had any idea of whom I wanted to pick as my role model, I had no clue. When I think of a hero, I think of someone who is admired for their courage or great achievements. When I googled “what is a hero?” I read: “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” This astonished me. Typically a man? In 2015 in the United States, this is the definition of a hero? Malala is a girl who has modeled great courage and achievements; I think Malala is noble in a way because she has high morals and principles. I think heroes and role models definitely overlap. A role model is someone that you look up to, someone who you would like to emulate. I feel like Malala is both a role model and a hero. She inspires me with her resilience and bravery. Malala is an amazing young woman who is admired all over the world for standing up for her beliefs and not keeping silent.

Mingora, Pakistan, is where Malala grew up. Mingora is the capital of Swat Valley. Swat Valley is still a beautiful city, but after the Taliban took control in 2007, the peaceful city of tourist attractions and amazing weather became an area with a military presence. There were bomb blasts and kidnappings. In the book I am Malala, (which I suggest all of you read) Malala talks about her city as a “garden,” with wildflowers, orchards of delicious fruit, and rivers full of trout. Malala lived in Mingora, which used to be more of a small town but many people from surrounding villages started to move in, which led to its becoming more of a crowded and busy city.

Many of the rich people of Pakistan would come to visit Swat on holidays to enjoy the beautiful scenery, and festivals with music and dancing. Swat used to be separate from the rest of Pakistan. It was once its own state. When India became independent from the British and was divided in 1947, Swat combined with the newly created Pakistan.

In ancient times Swat was a Buddhist kingdom. Their kings ruled the valley for many years. Islam came to the valley during the 11th century. General Islamic beliefs revolve around the commandments and will of their one and only God (Allah). The belief is that judgment is based on a person’s sincere repentance and righteous deeds.

Between 2007 and 2009 the Taliban extended influence across Swat. After elections in 2008, the government of Pakistan and the Taliban negotiated a treaty to restore peace in the area. However, the Taliban did not follow the plan. People kept dying in front of Malala’s eyes. Then Benazir Butto, the first prime minister in Pakistan, and a woman, was also shot and killed. Malala looked up to this woman, and she was moved by her motivation. No one was safe anymore after Butto’s death. Malala’s heart sank. Killing women was against the Pashtunwali code, which is an ethical code that has governed the life of Pashtuns for many centuries. Many people were shocked when Benazir Butto was murdered.

Yes, it may seem obvious that my life and Malala’s life appear to be so different, and we have grown up very differently, but we definitely have similarities. Malala is double-jointed, and loves cupcakes; she even loves Shrek, and watching Master Chef, a cooking show. I found it so funny that we had these little things in common. What really connected for me, though, was the way Malala and I have a true passion for helping others.

Malala’s perseverance also greatly inspires me. She is her own self, but the way her parents raised her definitely impacted her beliefs and way of thinking. Ziaudinn (Malala’s father,) is probably the reason that Malala went to school in the first place. (video clip of Malala’s father)

Something that definitely stuck out to me from these short videos was when he said, “I didn’t clip her wings.” By creating the Khushal public schools (which started out just for girls) Malala, along with many other girls, was given the opportunity to learn and grow. Ziaudinn is the owner of the school and an educational activist himself. The Taliban even threatened him. They said, “Stop this or you will be in trouble and your children will weep and cry for you.” This didn’t stop Malala or her father. Even though neither of them really wanted to show it, they were scared, of course. They just didn’t let their fear get in the way. (video clip of her thoughts on fear)

When I looked at my values, I definitely found some connections. Malala’s father accepted her as a person. He didn’t give up and say, “my daughter is a girl, I don’t want her to rise up.” This reflects their value of determination; he and Malala were determined to get all girls to go to school no matter what stood in their way.

On January 15, 2009 all girls’ schools were closed by the Fazlullah, the head of the Taliban. It was announced on the radio that televisions were not to be watched, because TV showed the Westernized world where women were doing something other than working at home. It hurt Malala to think about not going to school, not having her books and not seeing her friends. When I think about Malala’s school experiences compared to mine, there is a big difference. I grew up knowing there was no doubt I was going to school, I didn’t even give it a thought. Malala didn’t have that choice. We grew up with different opportunities, rights and taboos.

For me, this resonates with the value of freedom. What is interesting is that Malala and I experienced freedom in different forms. I have it, and she wanted it. I have grown up with the right to education, but Malala grew up in a place where many girls didn’t even get this chance. But she wanted it badly.

After it had been announced that all girls’ schools were to be closed, parents took their children out of school because they were scared. Malala said she thought the Taliban was trying to make the girls in Pakistan into identical “life-size dolls”. She wasn’t going to let this happen. When her school closed, Malala wouldn’t stop learning. She was given an English comedy called Mind Your Language, which helped Malala with her English.

Finally, the day Malala could go back to school came. Fazlullah surprisingly agreed to let girls under ten years old go back to school. Madam Maryam, Malala’s teacher, sent out a message to all of the older girls in the upper school inviting them back to school, without wearing their uniforms, because they would be noticed. They did this as a silent protest, and to protect the girls.

Malala kept going to school, but nothing seemed to get better. People were beaten in public, and the Taliban kept bombing schools. In 2008 the Taliban bombed two hundred schools! That is when Malala realized that she had to speak out. She used her voice for all of the girls who wanted to speak out but couldn’t. Malala spoke out to local and national TV channels, radio, and newspapers. (video clip re: raising her voice) It really impresses me how Malala not only had strong feelings about certain things, but she shared them with the community in a peaceful but effective way. When she spoke out she had to put her worries about the Taliban in the back of her mind– worries that she or her family could get killed. She risked her life for what she knew she deserved: her rights, an education, and to be herself. (NY Times video)

Of course this caught up to her; the Taliban noticed that a young girl had been speaking out about education and they didn’t like it. On October 9th, 2012, Malala and her friends got on the small bus to go home after school after having just finished their final exams. A young man stopped the bus and asked if they were from the Khushal School. Another man leaned into the back and asked, “Who is Malala?” The next thing she felt was the crack of three bullets.

After Malala had been shot she immediately was taken to New Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, unconscious, and all of the transportation costs for treatment abroad were paid for by the government of Pakistan. Malala had to pass the hours by writing in her diary and watching TV, waiting for her family to visit her, because her family continued to be at high risk. After 16 days her family finally came to Birmingham, and they were reunited. After many different operations, Malala and her family finally formed their own new home in Birmingham, England. (VIDEO CLIP)

As I said before, I find it so interesting how Malala and I are so similar yet so different. Malala is just a regular girl too. In her book, Malala remembers when she was younger and she hated her nose and other parts of her face. Once she was shot her face changed a bit, but she said, “a funny face in the mirror is simply proof that you are still here.” I definitely think Malala and I share the values of determination, acceptance, bettering the world, and friendship. While Malala and all of the girls at their school were being threatened and were scared, they kept their friendships strong.

What I find so fascinating is that even AFTER Malala nearly died from a gunshot, she kept going. She stayed true to her beliefs. About a year later Malala spoke at the UN. She now has an amazing non-profit organization called the Malala Fund that publicizes, invests, and advocates for the empowerment of girls through education. (video clip from U.N. talk)

I have to be honest. When I started writing this paper I only knew Malala as the girl who was shot by the Taliban. She is more than that. She inspires me because of the way she persevered, for herself and for the millions of other suffering girls. I of course live in different circumstances, but Malala has inspired me to keep on doing what I am doing, even if something horrific gets in the way. I would also love to do the type of work Malala and her organization do; it brings a smile to my face to change someone’s life.

Malala is not only a role model for me; she is a role model for the world. Next time someone tells you that Malala is “the girl who got shot be the Taliban,” you should say “yes AND, she’s the girl who has made changes around the world.”