5 Things I’ve Learned from Malala Yousafzai

Today is Malala Yousafzai’s 21st birthday. As an activist, advocate for girls’ education, champion of human rights and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala’s words and actions offer inspiration and hope to people all over the world.

In 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala as she travelled home from school. She was 15-years-old, and had already been advocating for girls’ right to education in her home country of Pakistan for several years.

One year later, on her 16th birthday, Malala gave a speech at the UN that cemented her position as one of the most inspiring, influential and important young people alive today. In the 4 years since that speech, Malala has turned personal passion into a powerful international movement working to transform the future – not only for girls and women, but for the world at large.

The same summer that Malala spoke at the UN, I graduated from university. In the 4 years since that speech, I have been working to build my career in gender equality and women’s rights. As I’ve done so I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about what it takes to create change in the world and what it means to be successful.

Some of the most invaluable lessons I have learned so far – in both my professional and personal life – have been from the women I admire and look to as role models. Women like Malala.

And yes, she may have only just turned 21, but the world seems finally to be getting the message – underestimate young women at your peril. I believe there is so much we can learn from Malala Yousafzai, and so in honour of her birthday, I’ve made a list of 5 lessons she’s taught me in my career so far!

1. Speak up

“We realise the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.”

It can sometimes be easy to take the freedom to raise my voice, and especially the freedom to do so in safety, for granted. Malala reminds me that there are millions of girls and women without that luxury, and if we can do so must use our voices to make sure that that those who are silenced can be heard.

2. Be brave

“There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.”

Malala’s story is one of immense courage. She has continued to fight for what she knows to be right in the face adversity that many could scarcely imagine, and she stands up time and time again against fear and threats and violence. Her bravery encourages me to be more bold and her refusal to give in to fear reminds me that I should do the same.

3. Be determined

“I’m just a committed and stubborn person who wants to see every child get [a] quality education – who wants to see women having equal rights and who wants peace in every corner of the world.” 

No matter what else is happening around her, Malala never wavers from her commitment to girls’ education. I often feel frustrated when it seems that change happens far too slowly – but Malala shows me the value of dedication and conviction.

4. Be knowledgeable

“None of the nine biggest countries in Africa, Latin America and developing Asia have increased their education budgets. Several are even making drastic cuts, putting more girls out of school.”

Malala’s knowledge when it comes to her cause reminds me that if I want to change something, I have to understand how it works in the first place. It’s clear that Malala understands the issues facing countries around the world preventing girls from accessing education, and it’s that knowledge that makes people listen up and take her seriously.

5. Be humble 

“I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.”

Despite her many achievements, awards and fame (she is the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize) Malala always speaks and acts with kindness, grace and humility. It might not be specific to work in gender equality, but it’s a quality I admire and try to replicate all the same!

Feeling inspired? Follow Malala on Twitter, make a donation to the Malala Fund, watch He Named Me Malala or check out her interview with David Letterman

An Ode to HER

She has a fragile heart
Which is tearing her apart
But she bears it all
To make it through the downfall.

She has a sensitive soul
Which is slipping from her control
But she stays strong
To withstand the storm.

She is emotionally scarred
And feels nervous when it rains hard
But she’s constantly wrestling
Because she will not be settling.

She is physically abused
And her compassion is misused
But she keeps telling herself
That she belongs somewhere else.

Her world is crumbling
And every word she says comes stumbling
But she searches for hope
In stars through a telescope.

Her eyes are bleeding
And her heart barely beating
But she is walking on her own
Healing her soul and the world as she goes.

She Chose to be Strong

She knew she could become weak,
but she had the choice to stay at her peak.
She knew she could rest,
but she had the choice to be her best.
She knew she could give up,
but she had the choice to stand up.
She knew she could wither,
but she had the choice to shimmer.
She knew she could hide,
but she had the choice to fight what’s inside.
She knew she could be ordinary,
but she had the choice to be legendary.
She knew she could be another dead soul,
but she had the choice to achieve her goal.
She knew she could always crave,
but she had the choice to be brave.
She knew she could close all the doors
but she had the choice to explore the abandoned floors.
She knew she could be a survivor,
but she had the choice to be a warrior.
She knew she could not withstand the storm; and so she chose to be the storm.
She knew she had the choice; and so she chose to be strong.

Tech Lab Connects Pakistani Women to the World

In Gilgit, a rural region of north Pakistan, Shaheen I-Tech Lab is living proof that the internet and feminism go hand-in-hand. Created exclusively for women, the computer lab provides a safe, productive, and collaborative space to access the internet, free of cost.

Opportunities become available when you become globally interconnected,” cofounder of Shaheen I-Tech Lab, Shaffaq Noor, said. “If women want to learn more about a specific field, nobody can really stop them. I know that they don’t have all of the opportunities, but this lab shows them that anything is possible.

Photo by Ali Atif

Across Pakistan, Internet cafés are typically male-dominated and considered unsafe or improper places for girls and women. Gender disparity is prominent in Pakistan; out of 144 countries in the world, Pakistan is rated the second highest in the Global Gender Gap. An entrenched patriarchy limits the mobility of girls and women in public spaces, dictating their choices for schooling, work, and self-presentation. These social barriers manifest themselves in the digital arena.

According to UN Women, Eastern and Southeastern Asia have the largest gender gap globally in terms of women using the internet. Only 28% of women have access to the Internet in comparison to 42% of men. 98.8% of rural women in Pakistan lack access to education, compared to 29.3% of women living in urban areas. Socioeconomic inequality also contributes to accessibility, leaving rural women the most isolated from internet access in the country. Shaheen I-Tech Lab aims to close that gap. Women are welcome regardless of social status, age, or technical skills.

Juggling computer science classes and working at her university’s IT department, Shaffaq opened Shaheen I-Tech Lab in December 2016. Sharing her passion for STEM was a no-brainer – the 23-year-old is always thinking of the connections between her life in the States and the experiences of women in north Pakistan. Shaffaq moved from Pakistan to the States in 2002, and opening the lab in her mother’s hometown of Danyor in Gilgit was a conscious decision.

I wanted to create a change in my own neighborhood, as it is a place I am familiar with,” Shaffaq told me. “I want to see north Pakistan grow on itself. I want this to be a platform that they use to help their local community and advocate for feminism.

The lab is a family affair in more ways than one. The idea was sparked when Shaffaq’s sister, Sehar Noor, struggled to complete her college registration online while visiting family in Danyor. She had trouble accessing to the internet, and as a woman, internet cafes weren’t an option. The sisters realized that the internet could empower women in Danyor by breaking down barriers to education, employment, and networking.

Today, the lab includes 10 desktop computers and 7 laptops. The lab is located in Shaheen Degree College, an all-girls secondary school, where students, teachers, and local women can enroll in basic computer skills and word processing classes.

Photo by Ali Atif

[The lab] is in a secure area. Only girls are there, so they feel free, without hesitation, and can ask for help,” said Aminah Bader, a computer science lecturer at Shaheen Degree College.

Aminah has worked at Shaheen Degree College since January 2017 and manages the computer lab. She and Shaffaq are regularly collaborating on new courses to offer the students. For example, in January, workshops were held on HTML coding, online courses, resume building, and international and local scholarships. There was also a keynote speaker, Dr. Fatima Qalandarie, who spoke about being raised in north Pakistan and going on to become a doctor in the United Kingdom. Shaffaq says that it was inspiring for women “to see a role model discuss her journey that started from a similar route as theirs.

Currently, in Shaheen I-Tech Lab, Aminah is teaching courses on typing and Microsoft Office. It is a multi-purposeful space: local women use it for internet searches, teachers use it to supplement lectures, and students use it to complete assignments or research scholarships. Aminah is eager to teach more computer skills and is proud of the progress that the women have made.

When I started teaching, some students were unable to even turn on the computer,” Aminah said. “Most of the students from secondary didn’t even have email [addresses]; I think, for about 25 students, I made an email ID for them. It was a great challenge for me to make awareness and to [teach them] the basic skills of the computer.

In March, Shaheen I-Tech Lab was awarded an Awesome Without Borders Grant. Shaffaq will use the funding to buy new equipment and expand course offerings to younger girls so they become more comfortable using technology. Another plan is to move the lab to a different space in the college, so women have more room to meet and collaborate.

Growth, above all, is Shaffaq’s vision. She not only wants Shaheen to thrive, but to open more computer labs for women in north Pakistan. Shaffaq views computer labs as a mechanism for women to become involved in the social, economic, and political developments in Pakistan, and the world at large.