Malala Yousafzai: The Power of Kindness in Activism

Last Sunday, my daughter, Emily, and I went to see Malala Yousafzai speak. You probably recall that Malala is a young Pakistani woman who was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out in support of education rights for girls in her community. She has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and is also the youngest recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize.

She has 5 public speaking engagements in the US this summer, while she’s on school break (remember, she’s very pro-education, including her own!) and Seattle was one of her stops. Emily and I were giddy with anticipation. I was officially dubbed “best mom ever” for getting us the tickets earlier in the year. (That never fails her; she can get whatever she wants with that line… she’s my favorite human after all!) We waited in a crazy long line due to heightened security, which made us both really sad, because we know that she needs that and what is wrong with some aspects of this world anyway? Ugh.

Shuffling forward in small fits and starts gave us an excellent time to chat about Malala. Her book, that great movie about her, her general awesomeness and how we couldn’t really believe we were going to SEE HER LIVE AND IN PERSON. Mind you, this was us and 10,000 other folks as well. We weren’t exactly in a cozy personal seminar or anything. There is something undeniably magical and mysterious about the effect of being in the same vicinity with someone we have come to feel we know and care about, someone we see as a teacher, a mentor, a friend despite having never met.

We knew of at least four groups of folks also attending, through our local community, through my professional community. It was feeling a bit like old home week. I was regretting not having bothered with attention to clothes. Or make up. Or hair. Oh well! It was Sunday night for the love of Mike!

Things got started very late due to the security lines. Malala graciously insisted on waiting until everyone got inside. 

When she finally came on stage, it was electric. It would not be an exaggeration to say that both Emily and I found ourselves weeping, overcome by pretty much the simple fact of her existence and presence here. The awareness of all she has been through and what she continues to do was so affecting. One might become dark and embittered as a result of those experiences. Malala simply radiates love and positive energy. I believe that in some measure, we also wept with relief, given the weeks’ prior roll calls of death and violence and fear mongering in our own country as well as beyond.

And she was funny and charming and lighthearted too once she started speaking. I admire this specific thing: her ability to be funny and charming and light while laser focused on her message which she provides with consistency and calm and humility and lack of judgment. She is fierce and loving at the same time. I kept thinking: and she’s just turned 19. Who knows what will come in the future?

The things she spoke about that have stayed with me and really remained powerful to me started out with why she is so passionate about education for girls. She described education as the path to having an identity of her own, as a woman, not to be exclusively identified as a mother, a daughter, a wife. Anticipating the main question people ask her: aren’t you afraid to be speaking out like this, she had a series of simply remarkable statements.

She said “it is more risky to not to speak out” because the alternative is living with the undesirable situation for the rest of her life. In her fight for peace and education:

"All I had was my voice. All I had was my pen.
I did not know that this is what the terrorists would be most afraid of: the voice of a young girl. 
This is when I realized my voice really had power; it really had strength. 
It scared them the most. 
They were not scared of any guns. 
They were scared of one single girl speaking out for her right to go to school.”

After being shot, Malala had to consider if she would stop speaking up now. She told us that night “What I realized was that the worst thing that could ever happen to me has already happened. What else can they do?” 

“And now it has been proven that nothing can stop me. Not even a bullet.”

How did this happen, that this amazing young woman became a global icon? What in her journey compelled her from this playful little girl to commanding a sold out stadium at 19?

I think about my own journey from that age.

(this is me!)

(this is me!)

What was I doing at 19? Fumbling through college with no idea what I wanted to do with my life, frankly. This doesn’t make me feel ashamed, it simply augments my wonder at the idea of a personal trajectory like Malala’s.

Malala speaks with great love and affection for her whole family as the crucial element in her development, particularly her father, a teacher and activist in service of education rights for girls from Malala’s early days. As the Taliban took control, this became an increasingly dangerous activity in their community and many people were killed for it. As Malala shared with us that evening, her father did not tell her as a young budding activist that his name had been put on the death rolls. As she expressed it, it was unthinkable at that time that a child could be in direct danger. How quickly norms shift…

In 2012, the year Malala was shot, there were 3,600 documented attacks on education, including violence, torture and intimidation against children and teachers, resulting in death or serious injuries, the shelling and bombing of schools and the recruitment of school-age children by armed groups.

Education reduces hunger, child marriages, early births and death in childbirth. Roughly 65 million girls around the world are currently denied education. If you haven’t seen Malala’s speech as recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, I heartily recommend it.

In the talk that Emily and I were at, Malala spoke with great humility about the idea that she is not special. That any number of her old school friends were just as, if not more, smart, brave, dedicated to education than she is. They had to deal with fathers and brothers who would not let them speak out, who prevented them from attending school in later years.

After all she is been through, the thing that stood out so starkly to me and stayed in my heart after the event with the deepest impact was her kindness, her lovingness. She says she forgives the boys who shot her and you can see that she is genuine. She clearly isn’t condoning the behavior but she understands already the corrosive power of hatred upon the hater and she has rejected this for herself. It made me think of this amazing poem: Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye


One aspect of Malala’s story that stayed with me as one of her great sorrows, that seemed to me to have brought her far greater sadness than having been shot, is the fact that she has never been able to go back home again to the Swat Valley in Pakistan, a place she described with great tenderness and love as a beautiful and bountiful place to grow up. She lives now in the UK. Fortunately her family is with her. Her early days in the hospital in London sounded by her telling to be most marked by their absence for 10 days.

I wonder how hard this displacement has been on her. She is relentlessly positive in her story telling, one of the amazing gifts of hearing her speak. After time reflecting though, I wonder about the cost? Perhaps the cost for her personally isn’t too awful, she has her family and she sounds as though she has found a clear role and place for herself and sees a future path. We know from our learning about the science of hope that these are critical things: the ability to see a future, the steps to get there and the internal means to walk those steps. 

In this vein of thought, a friend and colleague shared with me the TEDx talk from documentary filmmaker, Amy Benson, on Girls Education in the Developing World, a precursor to her documentary on the same topic, Drawing the Tiger, which highlights the story of one talented girl from Nepal who gains access to education, referred to by the filmmakers as the “globalization jackpot: a charity scholarship for their daughter to go to school in the capital city.” The girl in the film committed suicide and the documentary explores her story.

What lessons are there for us to learn from this documentary and other similar stories as we in the West seek to bring community development resources to the rest of the globe? I’m no international development expert but I think maybe one important element is something we at Healthy Gen make a priority in our work here: the voice and experience of the person and people one is hoping to create benefit for must be held at the center and the core of whatever story we are telling. The “nothing about us without us” principle. Doing ”with” or “as,” not “to.” 

Malala has been able to tell her own story and, indeed, her story has in many ways become her path. She was very clear in her talk the other night to highlight that her goal is to lift up the stories of other girls like her. I wish I had thought to email in a question about this topic ahead of time. She did a Q & A after her talk based on presubmitted questions. Maybe I’ll find another way to ask her about this.

In the meantime, I am so glad that Emily and I got to share the evening with Malala and 10,000 of her closest Seattle pals. In all seriousness, there was something deeply moving about simply being in one large space filled with so many people who shared the same respect and love for this young woman and her cause. For her call that we all help to lift up the voices of young girls everywhere. What a mighty chorus that will become!


“This is the sound of all of us
Singing with love and the will to trust
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
This is the sound of all of us”

Credit: “One Voice” by The Wailin’ Jennys

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