A girl with a red hijab smiling with her hands clasped by her face as she poses for the photo
John Russo/Contour by Getty Images

Malala the Powerful

The inspiring true story of Malala Yousafzai’s crusade for girls’ education

By Kristin Lewis
From the October 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: to learn about one teen’s crusade for equality and to write an essay about the significance of her actions

Lexiles: 840L, 730L
Other Key Skills: compare and contrast, character, interpreting text, synthesis

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AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, think about what makes Malala’s voice powerful.

October 9, 2012, was a hot afternoon in the Swat Valley, an area in northern Pakistan. In the bustling city of Mingora, Malala Yousafzai [yoo-suf-ZAHY], 15, stepped onto a school bus with her classmates. She was tired after taking a big test earlier that day, but also happy—she was certain she’d done well.

The bus wound its way through the end-of day traffic. As Malala chatted with her best friend, Moniba, the sights and sounds of the city passed by—the busy shops, the ice cream sellers, the honking cars. At one point, a student began singing and everyone joined in.

But then, only a few minutes from Malala’s house, the bus came to a stop and two armed men boarded.

“Who is Malala?” one of the men demanded.

A feeling of terror filled the bus. Malala grabbed Moniba’s hand. And then the unthinkable happened: The gunmen opened fire.

One bullet hit Malala’s head near her left eye. Two of Malala’s friends were struck in their arms. Then the gunmen fled, leaving Malala to die.

It might be difficult to imagine why anyone would attempt to murder an innocent teenager on her way home from school. But to many—including Malala herself—the attack was not a surprise. That’s because Malala was not only a student. She was also a courageous fighter in the struggle to help girls in Pakistan get an education.

This work had made her a hero to many in Pakistan and around the world. It had also put her in grave danger.

It had made her the target of a dangerous terrorist group.

October 9, 2012, was a hot day in the Swat Valley, an area in northern Pakistan. In the city of Mingora, Malala Yousafzai [yoo-suf-ZAHY], 15, got on a school bus with her classmates. She was tired after taking a big test that day, but also happy: She was sure she’d done well.

The bus moved through traffic. As Malala chatted with her best friend, Moniba, the sights and sounds of the city passed by—the busy shops, the ice cream sellers, the honking cars. At one point, a student began singing and everyone joined in.

But then, just minutes from Malala’s house, the bus came to a stop and two armed men got on.

“Who is Malala?” one of the men demanded.

A feeling of terror filled the bus. Malala grabbed Moniba’s hand. And then the unthinkable happened: The gunmen opened fire.

One bullet hit Malala’s head near her left eye. Two of Malala’s friends were struck in their arms. Then the gunmen fled, leaving Malala to die.

It might be hard to imagine why anyone would try to kill an innocent teen on her way home from school. But to many—including Malala herself—the attack was not a surprise. That’s because Malala was not only a student. She was also a fighter in the struggle to help girls in Pakistan get an education.

This work had made her a hero to many in Pakistan and around the world. It had also put her in grave danger.

It had made her the target of a dangerous terrorist group.

SAKhanPhotography/Shutterstock.com (Swat Valley); Jim McMahon/Mapman® (map)

Banned From School

In the United States, all kids go to school until they are at least 16. Parents who refuse to educate their children can be arrested. But around the world, more than 258 million kids do not go to school. Historically, the majority of children out of school were girls. Some missed school to help support their families, or they may have had no school to go to. Sometimes it was discrimination that forced girls to stay home.

This was—and still is—the case in parts of Pakistan.

The men who shot Malala were part of a terrorist group called the Taliban. They had plotted to kill Malala because they saw her as a threat to their way of life. The Taliban believe in an extreme interpretation of Islam. They oppose democracy, individual liberty, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. Most Muslim people do not agree with the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.

The Taliban are not part of Pakistan’s government, but their forces are powerful. They operate in areas of Pakistan as well as parts of neighboring Afghanistan. And those who live in areas under Taliban control are forced to follow oppressive rules. Music is banned. So are television, movies, and games. For women and girls, life is particularly tough; they are forbidden to go to school or have careers. They are not allowed to wear makeup or bright clothing. Even adult women are banned from going anywhere in public—to go shopping or to sit in a park— without the company of a male relative. Breaking these rules brings severe punishment, which may include public whipping or imprisonment.

Like most Pakistanis, Malala and her family do not support the Taliban’s version of Islam. Malala’s family is deeply religious, but the Taliban do not tolerate any form of Islam that differs from their own.

In the United States, all kids go to school until they are at least 16. Parents who refuse to educate their children can be arrested. But around the world, more than 258 million kids do not go to school. 

Historically, the majority of children out of school were girls. Some missed school to help support their families. Others had no school to go to. Sometimes it was discrimination that forced girls to stay home.

This was—and still is—the case in parts of Pakistan.

The men who shot Malala were part of a terrorist group called the Taliban. They wanted to kill Malala because they saw her as a threat to their way of life. The Taliban believe in an extreme interpretation of Islam. They oppose democracy, individual liberty, and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. Most Muslim people do not agree with the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.

The Taliban are not part of Pakistan’s government, but their forces are powerful. They operate in areas of Pakistan and parts of neighboring Afghanistan. And those who live in areas under Taliban control are forced to follow oppressive rules. Music is banned. So are TV, movies, and games. For women and girls, life is particularly tough; they are forbidden to go to school or have careers. They are not allowed to wear makeup or bright clothing. Even adult women are banned from going anywhere in public—to go shopping or to sit in a park—without the company of a male relative. Breaking these rules brings severe punishment, such as public whipping or imprisonment.

Like most Pakistanis, Malala and her family do not support the Taliban’s version of Islam. Malala’s family is deeply religious, but the Taliban do not tolerate any form of Islam that differs from their own. 

Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

Malala, age 12, at her house in Mingora

What Could She Do?

The Swat Valley is a gorgeous place, known for its majestic green mountains, thick forests, and mighty rivers. It was once a popular vacation spot, attracting tourists from all over the world.

For most of her childhood there, Malala did not have to worry about the Taliban. But starting in 2007, the Taliban began seizing control of the Swat Valley. When the Pakistani army tried to stop them, the Taliban responded with terrible violence. They blew up government buildings and murdered police officers. At night, Malala was often awakened by the sounds of gunfire. During the day, men and women executed by the Taliban were left on the street as a warning to those who would dare defy them.

The Swat Valley is a gorgeous place. It has green mountains, thick forests, and mighty rivers. It was once a popular vacation spot, attracting tourists from all over the world.

For most of her childhood there, Malala did not have to worry about the Taliban. But in 2007, the Taliban began seizing control of the Swat Valley. When the Pakistani army tried to stop them, the Taliban responded with violence. They blew up government buildings. They killed police officers. At night, Malala was often awakened by the sounds of gunfire. During the day, people executed by the Taliban were left on the street as a warning to those who would dare defy them.

Peter Corns/Express Newspapers via AP Image 

In January 2009, the Taliban ordered all girls’ schools to close. That included Malala’s school, which her father had owned for more than a decade. This was devastating news. School was one of the most important parts of Malala’s life—and a luxury she never took for granted. After all, fewer than half the girls in rural Pakistan had the opportunity to receive any education at all.

Despite the Taliban’s order, Malala’s father decided to keep his school open. This was risky, especially because the Taliban were gaining popularity in Swat. Some saw them as a welcome alternative to Pakistan’s government and military, which had been plagued by corruption.

Malala and her family lived under constant threat. Across the region, hundreds of schools were being bombed. Teachers were being murdered. Malala and her classmates stopped wearing their school uniforms and began hiding their books under their clothing. Staying alive meant going to school had to be top secret.

Even with these precautions, many parents felt the risk was too great. Attendance at Malala’s school decreased by more than 60 percent.

But what could she do? What could one girl do but watch helplessly as her freedoms were taken away?

In January 2009, the Taliban ordered all girls’ schools to close. That included Malala’s school, which her father had owned for more than 10 years. This was devastating news. School was important to Malala. She never took it for granted. After all, fewer than half the girls in rural Pakistan had the chance to get any education at all.

Despite the Taliban’s order, Malala’s father kept his school open. This was risky. The Taliban were gaining popularity in Swat. Some saw them as a welcome alternative to Pakistan’s government and military, which had been plagued by corruption.

Malala and her family lived under constant threat. Across the region, schools were being bombed. Teachers were being murdered. Malala and her classmates stopped wearing their school uniforms. They hid their books under their clothing. They went to school in secret.

Even so, many parents felt the risk was too great. Attendance at Malala’s school dropped by more than 60 percent.

But what could she do? What could one girl do but watch helplessly as her freedoms were taken away?

Fareed Khan/AP Images

Pakistani students hold photographs of Malala during a protest against the Taliban’s attack. 

A Powerful Weapon

It turns out there was something she could do. Malala possessed a powerful weapon of her own: her voice. And she would risk everything to use it.

In 2009, she began blogging for the BBC’s Urdu site about what her life was like under the Taliban. (Urdu is an official language of Pakistan. The BBC is a public broadcasting company in the United Kingdom.) To protect her identity, Malala used a pseudonym. She wrote about her dreams for her future career and her fierce determination to get the education she needed, no matter what the Taliban did or how afraid she was.

And indeed, fear was her constant companion. “[One] day on my way home from school, I heard a man say, ‘I will kill you,’” she wrote. “I quickened my pace until I was far ahead of him. I ran home, shut the door, and after a few seconds, peeked out at him. There he was, oblivious to me, shouting at someone on his phone.”

Malala’s blog became incredibly popular; soon people all over the world were reading it. Malala was helping to focus attention on what was happening in Swat. Outrage grew, and many in Pakistan and around the world criticized the Pakistani government for allowing the Taliban to become so powerful.

It turns out there was something she could do. Malala had a powerful weapon: her voice. And she would risk everything to use it.

In 2009, she began blogging for the BBC’s Urdu site about her life under the Taliban. (Urdu is an official language of Pakistan. The BBC is a public broadcasting company in the United Kingdom.) To protect her identity, Malala used a pseudonym. She wrote about her dreams for her future career and her determination to get the education she needed, no matter what the Taliban did or how afraid she was.

And indeed, fear was her constant companion. “[One] day on my way home from school, I heard a man say, ‘I will kill you,’” she wrote. “I quickened my pace until I was far ahead of him. I ran home, shut the door, and after a few seconds, peeked out at him. There he was, oblivious to me, shouting at someone on his phone.”

Malala’s blog grew popular. Soon people all over the world were reading it. It brought attention to what was happening in Swat. People got angry. Many criticized the Pakistani government for allowing the Taliban to become so powerful. 

Abdul Majeed/AFP via Getty Images

In 2018, Malala returned to the Swat Valley for the first time since the attack. Today much of the area has been rebuilt and the Taliban have been largely driven out.

Malala’s Words

In May 2009, the Pakistani army launched a full-scale attack against the Taliban in Swat. Along with nearly a million refugees, Malala and her family were evacuated south.

The conflict lasted for three months; by August, most of the Taliban had been pushed out of the cities and into the countryside, and it was safe to go home.

After that, Malala launched a full-scale attack of her own. She became even bolder in her mission. Her identity as the famous BBC blogger was revealed. She appeared in a New York Times documentary, went on television shows, and gave speeches to Pakistani kids. Her message was always the same: All children deserve the right to an education.

Malala’s fears of retaliation did not subside though. When asked on a Pakistani talk show about the dangers of speaking out, she described how the Taliban might come for her one day: “I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly,” she said. “Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”

Malala’s words empowered her and other girls. Her courage gave hope to thousands. It also made her famous. In 2011, the president of Pakistan awarded Malala the country’s first national peace prize. It seemed that everyone knew her name.

Including the Taliban.

In 2012, Malala began receiving threats, ordering her to give up her cause or else. In the days leading up to the attack, she had a strange feeling that something bad was going to happen, as she would later write in her memoir. She thought about what it would be like to die and prayed to God. But she refused to back down.

In May 2009, the Pakistani army launched an attack against the Taliban in Swat. Along with nearly a million refugees, Malala and her family were evacuated south.

The conflict lasted for three months. By August, most of the Taliban had been pushed out of the cities and into the countryside. It was safe to go home.

After that, Malala launched an attack of her own. She became even bolder in her mission. Her identity as the famous BBC blogger was revealed. She appeared in a New York Times documentary, went on TV shows, and gave speeches to Pakistani kids. Her message: All children deserve the right to an education.

Malala still feared retaliation. When asked on a talk show about the dangers of speaking out, she described how the Taliban might come for her one day. “I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly,” she said. “Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.”

Malala’s words empowered her and other girls. Her courage gave hope to thousands. It also made her famous. In 2011, the president of Pakistan gave Malala the country’s first national peace prize. It seemed that everyone knew her name.

Including the Taliban.

In 2012, Malala began to get threats, ordering her to give up her cause or else. In the days leading up to the attack, she had a feeling that something bad was going to happen, as she would later write in her memoir. She thought about what it would be like to die. She prayed to God. But she did not back down. 

Abdullah Sherin/AP Images

Malala (sitting, second from right) with her family and Pakistan government official Marriyum Aurangzeb (far left) at their home in Mingora

Voices of Their Own

The hours following the shooting were a nightmare. Malala’s friends were not critically injured, but Malala was in bad shape. The bullet had destroyed her left ear and sent fragments of her skull into her brain tissue.

Yet she clung to life. She was flown to a hospital in Birmingham, in the U.K., that specializes in traumatic brain injuries. Her family soon joined her.

The Taliban took credit for the assassination attempt, saying it was a warning to other girls not to follow Malala’s example. Meanwhile, people across the world waited, tense and furious. The United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education immediately started a petition, calling on the president of Pakistan to make a place in school for every girl. One million people had soon signed. Cards flooded Malala’s hospital room. In Pakistan, millions prayed for her. Candlelight vigils were held around the globe. Protesters marched, many of them kids carrying signs that read “I Am Malala.”

It seemed that by trying to silence her, the Taliban had helped thousands of others find voices of their own.

The hours after the shooting were a nightmare. Malala’s friends were not critically injured, but Malala was in bad shape. The bullet had destroyed her left ear and sent fragments of her skull into her brain tissue.

Yet she clung to life. She was flown to a hospital in Birmingham, in the U.K., that specializes in treating traumatic brain injuries. Her family soon joined her.

The Taliban took credit for the attack, saying it was a warning to other girls not to follow Malala’s example. Meanwhile, people across the world waited, tense and angry. The United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education started a petition, calling on the president of Pakistan to make a place in school for every girl. One million people had soon signed. Cards flooded Malala’s hospital room. In Pakistan, millions prayed for her. Candlelight vigils were held around the globe. Protesters marched. Many were kids carrying signs that read “I Am Malala.”

It seemed that by trying to silence her, the Taliban had helped thousands of other people find voices of their own.