The Inspirational Malala Yousafzai

A presentation held on August 4th, 2013 at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church

Apparently those with patriarchal religious beliefs do not like educated women. Such beliefs find their expression in numerous sources, such as the demonic temptress Lilith in Judaism, the recommended treatment of women in Paulian Christianity, the the Quran's verse 34 of Surah an-Nisa, which establishes hierarchy and allows domestic violence. In some cases those people with such misogynist attitudes, derived from such texts, are prepared to engage in the worst sort of violence to further their hateful ideas. Such misogyny has a particular place in history due to its prominence in religious thought often used in the union of thinking that both hates women and fears the concept that they are deserving of equal rights.

One such situation occurred in the Swat valley of north-western Pakistan, near the border of Afghanistan. In 2009 thousands of members of the Taliban in Pakistan had engaged in a campaign of violent intimidation against schools which allowed the education of girls, destroying and closing down around one hundred and fifty schools in a single year and killing liberal and social activists. Believing in a special "purdah" for women, a gender apartheid, the Taliban sort to prohibit women from public life, enforcement of the Burqa, and banning any education of women after the age of eight and prior to then restricting studies to the Quran only. As is usual of such misogynistic policies it was argued by its advocates that this would restore dignity and purity to womanhood - whether they wanted it or not.

A schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, was unhappy with this interpretation and imposition of theocratic doctrine. She decided to tell the world what was happening Swat by running an anonymous 'blog through the BBC, her handwritten material delivered to a reporter, then scanned, and published on the BBC Urdu-language site. Writing with the pen-name Gul Makai, her real first name expressed some tragic and ironic sense of historical inevitability, meaning "grief stricken". Although aged only eleven at the time of initiating the 'blog, she expressed her deep wish to continue her education, and described her home province as "very beautiful but there is no peace". Eventually identified, she rose in international media prominence with a documentary conducted by the New York Times where she expressed her wish to become a medical doctor. This coincided with the Pakistani government launching an overwhelming military offensive to wrest Swat out of the Taliban's control. Whilst the action that was a decisive victory, it also was another interruption to her education.

A number of follow-up media interviews occurred and the young Malala became the chairperson of the Swat District Child Assembly in 2010 at the age of thirteen, where she and other young people expressed their concerns of the state of education in the district, the trauma that they had faced, and to offer solutions. Her continued advocacy for education in general, and education for girls in particular, led her to be nominated by Bishop Desmond Tutu in 2011 for the International Children's Peace Prize. In late 2011, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, established the National Youth Peace Prize for those under the age of 18; Malala was the winner of the inaugural prize, which has since been renamed the National Malala Peace Prize.

Clearly the successes of the young woman and her international recognition enraged certain religious fundamentalists, who targeted her. On 9 October 2012, Malala, now aged fifteen, was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taleban gunmen while returning home on a school bus, along with schoolmates Shazia Ramzan and Kainat Riaz. Unconscious and in critical condition for the days that followed, Malala was sent to the U.K for rehabilitation, and underwent two operations over five hours at Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in an attempt to repair her skull and hearing.

Shortly after the assassination attempt, former British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, launched a United Nations petition using the slogan "I am Malala", calling for all children worldwide to be in school by the end of 2015. The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, also recognised the importance of the campaign and on November 10, 2012, announced that day would be henceforth recognised internationally as "Malala Day". In January 2013 she was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, and in February the Peace Research Institute of Oslo nominated Malala for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Recovering from being shot, Malala returned to school (now in the U.K.) in March 2013, just as the UK National Secular Society awarded her the title of "Secularist of the Year" with prize money being donated to Plan UK's Girl's Fund. It must have been a bitter irony for her would be assassins who condemned her promotion of education of young women and girls as "promoting secularism". Taking the interest up another notch, the following month Time magazine featured her on the front cover including her as one of "The 100 Most Influential People in the World". It has also been announced that she will received the Champion for Global Change Award on November 6 this year at an event hosted by the UN Foundation, and the United Nations Association of the U.S.A.

This is, however, more than just a story of an incredibly tenacious young woman who has stood up against the threat of murderous violence for justice and equality and received the world's attention, as remarkable as that story is. It is also however a story of the conditions that have led to such tenacity to come to the surface. Today in the world there are some thirty-two million girls and young women who do not attend school, either because there is no school or they are prevented in doing so. Some, like Malala, are threatened by misogynistic violence, others by ethnic, or political conflicts. Millions are taken out of school to become child-brides, against their will. Others are forced into child labour.

There is some good news however. Perhaps inspired by examples like Malala, young women around the world are making their just claim for educational rights. In Bangladesh, groups of girls called "wedding busters", with backing from their male allies and teachers, are working to prevent the practices that allow a father to sell a girl into a forced marriage at ages as low as 10. In nearby Nepal, a there is now a campaign to end the traditional custom of selling off young women each year into domestic labor. In India, organisations such as The Global March Against Child Labor, are trying to introduce laws that prohibit child trafficking. In Niger, young women have successfully challenged in law and are appealing to tribal leaders to use the existing laws against child marriage.

After Malala's shooting, young women around the world proclaimed in solidarity "I am Malala", by petition, by email, by postcards, by letter, by banners, by t-shirts, by protest marches - including those in Pakistan who wore headbands with the slogan. They had announced to the world that they were no longer prepared to treated without justice and fairness, that they too had rights, a voice, and a sense they were deserving of the opportunity to map their own destiny, rather than having it imposed upon them. It is also sharp evidence that the common assumption that youngsters are only interested in relatively trivial issues - pop music, fashion, dating, and hairstyles - is completely wrong. It would be worthwhile for older adults to consider some of the trivialities that their time is spent on as well.

Most recently, on July 12, 2013 - her sixteenth birthday - Malala Yousafzai was given the opportunity to speak at the United Nations to call for worldwide access to education. Presenting the UN Secretary-General a petition of four million signatures demanding that world leaders fund new teachers, schools, books, and end child labour, marriage, and trafficking, Yousafzai remarked: "The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died.... Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution".

The U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said that the United Nations was committed to a target of getting all children in school by the end of 2015. We will see of course, if that commitment plays out to become actual reality. As an organisation with little enforcement powers, except in the case of threats to international security, an appeal to have all children in school by 2015 seems very unlikely indeed. But it the very least the issue is on the agenda and has a moral force, not the least because of the age and experience of the person making the advocacy in the public spotlight. With sufficient public support, the capacity of a sixteen year-old schoolgirl to embarrass the leaders of the world into action is not something to be underestimated.

What is most inspirational about Malala is not her fame of course, but rather the moral leadership and fearlessness that she had displayed. She has expressed her distaste for politics, and rightly so. To witness of the pettiness and desperate "grasping and clinging" (or upadana use the Buddhist term) to power that exists in so many organisations, large and small, is enough to turn most people off. Instead Malala has expressed interest in becoming a doctor. A broader and perhaps more appropriate profession would be as a healer. A healer of hatred, of fears, of ignorance. A healer that breaks down the barriers between people of different faith traditions. A healer that uses education as their medicine.

This address is not just as positive biography and a call to join in the campaign for worldwide education for the young. There is a Unitarian-Universalist feature to it as well. A generation ago, the great theologian, musician, physician, and Noble Peace Prize recipient, Albert Schweitzer, was asked to become an honorary the Unitarian-Universalist by the Church of the Larger Fellowship on account of his philanthropy and his "reverence for life", as he called his philosophy. Schweitzer accepted the offer "with pleasure" and in becoming a Unitarian-Universalist, in no way did give up his Lutheran faith. We have never asked that. The Christian, the Muslim, the Jew, the Buddhist, the Taoist, the Hindu, the pagan, the atheist - all are welcome in a fellowship that places priority to a common commitment to freedom of conscience, social justice, and reason.

Should Malala become a Unitarian-Universalist, retaining her Muslim faith? We would certainly hope so, but she has to hear about us first! After all, we are not known for our size or marketing. People find us almost by accident. So, by the way of some encouragement, Malala Yousafzai has received a copy of this address and, if the timing is right, she will be reading it on the other side of the world at around the same time that this address is given. The local Unitarian church has also been contacted, as has the Executive Director of International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

Will she join the tradition which counts among its broad membership great leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Susan Anthony, technologists like Buckminister Fuller and Tim Berners-Lee, physicians such as Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, authors and poets like Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa Alcott, or the dedicated and recently deceased Pakistani peace activist Inderias Dominic Bhatti? Obviously such a choice will hers and hers alone, but should certainly be in good company if she decided in the positive. It may take some time, after all, she's probably a little busy at the moment. But one thing is for certain; the story of Malala Yousafzai is far from over. I suspect we will hear a great deal from her in coming years.

Address by Lev Lafayette