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The Heroism of Malala

This morning, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist the Taliban shot in the head in 2012 in an attempt to silence her crusade for girls’ education, addressed the United Nations in her first public speech since her attempted assasination. Sixteen years old as of today, she spoke with a worldliness and clarity that moved many in the audience to tears. It’s well worth checking out her speech, available here

“[The Taliban] thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed,” Yousafzai said today. “Out of that silence came thousands of voices. … Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.” This image of an empty space waiting to be filled was at the heart of today’s speech, a metaphor representing what Yousafzai nearly died for: the minds of young people, which can be expanded by education or hemmed in by prejudice and extremism.

“The war against schools is not just a war against schools,” New Republic Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier wrote shortly after Yousafzai and her friends were attacked on a schoolbus. Today’s UN address was resonant with the same belief that education is the linchpin to a world beyond extremism’s control; to a society that is global and inclusive rather than narrow, proscriptive, and under a single group’s heel. “That is why they are blasting schools every day,” Yousafzai proclaimed. “Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that it will bring into our society.”

Many have questioned whether Islamic sharia law, and in particular its strict limitations on the rights of women, could ever be compatible with the set of values Yousafzai has come to embody: equality for women, opportunity for everyone. But Yousafzai, who comes from a Muslim family in Pakistan’s Swat Valley—her father, a school owner and education activist, was her teacher, and the one who encouraged her to enter the political sphere—rejected that notion in her speech today. She portrayed religion as something that, just like social values, can be capacious or circumscribed, depending on who is running the conversation. She recounted:

I remember that there was a boy in our school who was asked by a journalist, "Why are the Taliban against education?" He answered very simply by pointing to his book. He said, "A Talib doesn't know what is written inside this book." They think that God is a tiny, little, conservative being who would point guns at people's heads just for going to school. These terrorists are misusing the name of Islam and Pashtun society for their own personal benefit.

Yousafzai noted with pride that the pink shawl she wore had once belonged to Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s slain former Prime Minister, another indefatigable woman leader. After Yousafzai survived her own violent attack, rumors circulated that she might someday make her own run for Pakistan’s highest office. Today she said, “The extremists were and they are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.” There’s no mistaking that her voice is a force to be reckoned with. 

Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.