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Nobel winner Yousafzai's courage continues to bear fruit in her homeland

  • Author: Shehla Anjum
  • Updated: July 1, 2016
  • Published October 14, 2014

I recently returned to Swat, in northern Pakistan, two years after the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, the valley's most famous citizen, for speaking out for children's education, and especially for girls.

I went back to Swat to see what had changed in the two years since my visit and to assess the local impact of Malala's shooting and her subsequent worldwide fame. I was struck by changes in education, art and community pride, which her example has inspired.

On Oct. 10, Malala became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She will share the award with Kailash Satyarthi, a children's rights activist from India.

Malala, who is both celebrated and criticized in Pakistan, can no longer live in Swat because of continued threats to her and to her family. Her critics say she is an "agent of the West, the Jews or the CIA." But many know otherwise. She now lives and goes to school in Birmingham, England, where she was nursed back to health.

The news about the prize was neither unexpected nor surprising for me. I sensed Malala had a special quality in 2009, when I first spoke with her about her fight for girls' education.

Those were the final months of the Taliban's takeover of Swat, which began in 2007. They escalated the terror -- beheading people, outlawing music and dance, bombing schools, and finally banning girls from attending schools. The people suffered but few did anything.

Among those who defied the Taliban was Malala. A few months later, a New York Times documentary showed her defending her right to attend school, and voicing her anger about the Taliban's edict to close girls' schools.

Unfortunately, the Taliban took note.

I have visited Swat several times since the mid-1970s and always saw children -- girls and boys -- going to school. I did not understand why they couldn't anymore. I wanted to do something but didn't know what.

Far away and feeling helpless, I wanted to help tell Malala's story. I managed to find the phone number for her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, and spoke with him and Malala.

Even at a distance, and by cellphone, I heard the courage in 11-year-old Malala's voice. When I told her I was concerned about her safety, she assuaged my fears and told me she was fine. I wasn't convinced.

In the next three years I periodically called her father to get an update. Each time he invited me to visit Swat and stay in his home.

I felt apprehension about going there. Although the Pakistani Army cleared out the Taliban in summer 2009, they still lurked and occasionally surfaced to kill those who opposed them.

In spring 2012, months before Malala was shot, I traveled to Swat. The family offered me Malala's room with its bright blue walls and equally bright pink bedding, filled with her school medals, prizes for activism and books.

Malala, now 14, had become a minor celebrity in Pakistan and beyond. She had matured since we first spoke but retained an innocence that I found refreshing. She went about her life like any schoolgirl, in Swat or elsewhere.

She went to school in the morning, did her homework, helped her younger brother, surfed the Internet, watched television with cousins and read. Her life was normal; she cared only about getting an education.

"After I finish my studies I want to enter politics. I want to serve my country," she said.

But all that changed when the Taliban shot her. She recovered and published a book about her education campaign. Ironically, the book was banned in her province, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

I credit Malala for what I noticed in Swat last month, when I again stayed with a Pashtun family. Every morning I heard the chatter of boys and girls outside my bedroom window heading to school.

At a girls' primary school I visited, I asked students what they wanted to be. Nearly all wanted to become a doctor or a teacher. One even dreamed of becoming a pilot; two, Army officers.

"Do you know Malala?" I asked. "Yes," they shouted in unison. They knew what she had done and the price she had paid.

Perhaps Malala's determination to chart her own life and to stand up for her rights also played into the resurgence of art and culture that I saw in Swat.

People play music without fear that they might be killed for listening to it. Artists, unshackled from the Taliban's dictate against images, dare to include human figures in paintings or sculptures. Some have eagerly claimed the ancient Buddhist culture that once flourished as their own. They are willing to give credence to the "graven images" the Taliban loathed and tried to destroy.

Malala's gift -- to her valley, her province and her country -- is the hope she has given to the children there and elsewhere, especially where girls' education is discouraged or banned.

The governments of many developing nations, including Pakistan, should not let this hope fade. Western nations, including the United States, should lend a hand. It is only through education and the opportunity it brings that we can defeat the ignorance and intolerance of the Taliban and others like them.

Shehla Anjum lives and writes in Anchorage. She was born in Karachi and visits Pakistan annually.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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