Nobel Peace Prize or Not, Malala Will Always be a Hero
One year ago today, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai struggled for her life in a hospital after being shot in the head by a member of the Taliban. Her crime? Advocating for all children, including girls, to have access to an education. Nearly one year later, I felt amazement, but certainly not surprise, when I read that Malala had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize honoring her work and her bravery. The saying -- that a person would risk their life for what they believe in -- has grown cliche, but when it comes to Malala it is the uncontroverted truth. She risked her life to advocate for education, and even after nearly dying, she continues to speak out despite the continued threats to her safety. The fact that she is still a child herself gives her message all the more impact.
While the honorable prize ultimately went to The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for the amazing work they do in Syria to destroy poison gas, their victory does not take away from anything Malala accomplished, including becoming a role model for my sons when they are old enough for me to explain to them just how brave Malala is.
Growing up as a Pakistani-American in South Florida, I longed for a role model. Someone like me reflected in the television I watched or the books I read. A Paula Abdul poster graced my bedroom wall for most of my middle school days, less because I loved her music, and more for her olive skin and her last name which had a hint of a heritage that might be shared with mine. Growing up, no one I knew could tell you where Pakistan was on a map. The Pakistani portion of my Pakistani-American heritage felt invisible in the life I lived.
And then came 9/11. And suddenly everything changed. Suddenly the catch phrases Muslim, Pakistani, Arab and some variation thereof, were blasted from every cable news channel on 24/7 news cycles. Suddenly I couldn’t turn on the television or pick up a magazine without an image of someone who bore my skin color or who had a name familiar to me. Suddenly people not only knew about Pakistan, they held strong opinions of my ancestral land. I was no longer invisible. But in the worst possible way.
Why are people from your country so angry? So evil? Someone asked me once. Questions like these, unexpected ones from friends, co-workers, and once, a law professor, caught me off guard. When I argued that just as there is bad and good in all countries and in all faiths, so too there is this dichotomy in my own, my response was typically brushed aside. Look at the news, they responded. Where is the other side you speak of. Sure, they conceded, you’re not like that but you also didn’t grow up there. While I would insist that one man’s crime is not another man’s burden even if the two looked similar, and that 99.5% of the world’s Muslim population are regular people just trying to get by though not necessarily newsworthy, my words were greeted with skepticism.
And then came Malala. Beautiful, brave, strong, Pakistani born and raised, Malala Yousafzai.
Malala didn’t just survive a harrowing ordeal. She doesn’t just champion the right to education for all. Malala gives a newsworthy narrative so beautiful and profound and courageous that everyone stopped. And listened. And, more beautiful still, the media gave her story a voice that reverberates the world over. And with that voice comes the unspoken acknowledgement that yes, while there is darkness in Pakistan, there are also people like Malala-- because she speaks for thousands if not millions of others just like her-- and that there is more to the narrative than what was previously covered.
Just as I believe that evil done by others is not a reflection of me even if they look like me, I also cannot say that the good and beauty of Malala is a reflection of me because she looks like me too, but I am proud of her. I am proud of the hope she gives to so many; for the role model she is for my sons. She took what people saw as a country of darkness and shined a light by the beauty and grace of her being. She broke, however briefly, the narrative of her birthplace.
Watch Malala talk to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show:
Aisha is a Pakistani-American writer, lawyer, and mother of two. For more of her writing please visit her website at www.aishasaeed.com.