UCSB Arts & Lectures hosted 2014 Nobel Peace laureate, women’s education activist and international bestselling author Malala Yousafzai at a sold-out event on June 27 at the Arlington Theatre, with simulcasts at Campbell Hall and The New Vic.
Seventeen-year-old Yousafzai grew up in Pakistan’s formerly Taliban-controlled Swat Valley where she advocated for women’s education after the Taliban declared no girls would be allowed to attend school. In response, a Taliban gunman shot her in the head in 2012. Having made a full recovery, she now continues her secondary education and activism in the United Kingdom. In October 2014, Yousafzai became the youngest Nobel laureate in history.
The event consisted of a short explanation my Yousafzai regarding her life and activism, followed by a discussion and Q&A session moderated by event sponsor and Malala Foundation board member Susan McCaw. McCaw presented questions pre-submitted by students at UCSB, Santa Barbara Middle School, Montecito Union Elementary and Harding University Partnership School.
Yousafzai said the Swat Valley was “paradise” before the Taliban took control, but terrorism brought “darkness” to her community.
“My life was a happy life and, suddenly, things changed,” Yousafzai said. “A villain came. This villain in our story was terrorism — Talibanization. Our peaceful valley turned from a place of tourism to a place of terrorism. More than 400 schools were destroyed at that time. People were flogged, killed; women were not allowed to go outside, girls’ education was banned and life became so hard.”
Yousafzai said her father allowed her to go to school even though most girls in the Swat Valley did not, providing her with the foundation that allows her to advocate for fair treatment and education for women.
“He treated me equally as my brothers,” Yousafzai said. “He allowed me to get education, and I was one of the luckiest girls who got this opportunity … He believed that if we want our society to go forward, if we want our country to succeed, we need to empower women.”
Yousafzai said she has fought for her own education and universal women’s education because it leads to individual empowerment.
“Unfortunately, in a patriarchal society, women lack identity,” Yousafzai said. “They are wives, sisters, mothers, but they are never allowed to have the identity of an individual. I did not want to suffer through the situation of being only called the wife or the mother to someone.”
Yousafzai said she is “not a lone voice” in her advocacy for women’s education, because she represents all those who are denied the opportunities she seeks to create.
“When I go and see presidents and prime ministers I say, ‘don’t think this is only this one girl, Malala, speaking to you, these are the girls in Nigeria, these are the girls in Kenya who do not get the opportunity to get their secondary school education,’” Yousafzai said.
Third-year global studies major Effie Sklavenitis said the event taught her the importance of speaking on behalf of others to create change.
“Everyone has a voice, and just because you’re one person doesn’t mean you’re alone. It means that you have to speak up if you want things to change.” Sklavenitis said. “Even when people speak up against you, you still have to keep on talking and keep on expressing your points.”
Yousafzai said she sees many students in countries with universal education who do not value and take advantage of their opportunities.
“It’s really sad because, one side of the world, children are fighting, children are struggling for the right to go to school … even if they have to pay, even if they have to travel long distances, even if they have to face the difficulty of having no teachers or sitting in a classroom with 90 to 100 students,” Yousafzai said. “I think all the children who have this opportunity should be very thankful.”
Third-year geology major Cassidy Meehan said the event prompted her to realize the value of the education she continues to receive.
“It really made me feel inspired to take advantage of my education,” Meehan said. “It really made me realize, ‘wow, I’m really lucky to have this.’”
According to Yousafzai, cultures that do not allow for or support women’s education can and should be changed.
“These cultures and traditions, they are not sent by God from the sky and said that this is your culture and you have to follow it,” Yousafzai said. “It is we people who have made these cultures, and we have the right and duty to change them when they go against basic human rights.”
Third-year global studies and marine biology double major Francesca Pezzullo said she agreed with Yousafzai that culture should not inhibit human rights.
“I think it’s really interesting to say that we can change our culture, we can change our traditions,” Pezzullo said. “It’s not a good thing to hold on to if it’s impeding on people’s human rights. It’s very important for people to understand that you can’t just hold onto it because it’s familiar. That doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Pezzullo said the event showed her, despite Yousafzai’s influence and achievements, that the activist is also a “very normal” teenage girl.
“She seemed like a very genuine person,” Pezzullo said. “She’s exceptional in her situation, but she seems like a down-to-earth person.”
Sklavenitis said the event inspired her to consider how students’ actions in the United States affect the fight for basic human rights in other parts of the world.
“I think it’s important for people to think about their own societies and their own actions every day and how that affects the bigger picture and how that affects anything from women’s rights to education for children, because everything is connected,” Sklavenitis said. “We may live in different places, but at the end of they day we live on the same planet.”
Pezzullo said Yousafzai’s story demonstrates the effect one activist can have on an issue.
“You have to be the one to see the change that you want to see happen, which is something that is hard for people to wrap their heads around because they feel like their life is so important personally, they don’t realize you have to actually do it yourself,” Pezzullo said. “Malala is a girl who just did it herself.”