Published September 21, 2017
President Satish K. Tripathi introduced the first speaker in the 2017-18 UB Distinguished Speaker Series Tuesday evening as “the woman who took on the Taliban because she wanted to go to school.”
But the very youthful — and what appeared to be a largely female — Alumni Arena audience didn’t need much of an introduction. The adoring, capacity crowd of 6,500 jumped to its feet to give a standing ovation to Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai when she came out onto the stage.
The youngest person to have ever been awarded the prize, Malala received it in 2014 along with Kailash Satyarthi, who has dedicated his life to advocating against child labor in India.
The daughter of a schoolteacher who strongly believes in educational equality, Malala had to stop attending school in 2008 when the Taliban banned girls from going to school in her village in Pakistan. Just 11 years old, she took her frustration to the web, blogging for the BBC under the pen name “Gul Makai” to protect her identity. The New York Times then made a documentary about the efforts of Malala and her father to promote education for girls.
When her school reopened in 2011, she began attending again, only to be shot in the face while on the school bus, targeted for advocating for girls’ education. Following a long recovery in a hospital in the United Kingdom, she published her memoir in 2013: “I am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban,” co-written with journalist Christina Lamb.
“I didn’t want to be married at 13,” she told the UB audience. She knew that if she did, it would mean that she would become “wife, mother and grandmother, and never get the opportunity to be a woman, to be a human being.”
The Taliban’s attempt on her life, of course, had the opposite effect. “The extremists made such a big mistake,” she said, “because now I’m speaking out globally.” Her organization, the Malala Fund, works with local leaders around the world to foster access to education for girls.
Her goals are hardly modest. “I want to send all the girls to school. I want to send all 130 million girls who are deprived of education to school. I want to inspire more Malalas.”
After a brief formal talk, Malala sat down for a relaxed chat with Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Although they had never met, the two established an instant rapport. The conversation revolved around questions that had been texted, tweeted or that came from the eager audience members who quickly lined up at microphones set up on the floor of the arena.
“What can an average young person do to help you in your campaign?” Malala noted that young people know that they are still in school, are inexperienced and have a “long journey” ahead of them. But, she said, “Do not underestimate the power you have in your voice.”
“Do you believe in the separation of church and state?” “I think the state is for the people,” she responded. “The state should be completely blind; it should count all the people the same. The state can learn from religion, but I would separate the two.”
On the subject of refugees and the intolerance they experience, she said that people need to learn that refugees are created by conflict and war. “You don’t become a refugee by choice,” she said.
When asked about the intolerance expressed by some heads of state, she said that the answer to that is quality education that emphasizes harmony, tolerance and above all, knowledge.
She discussed climate change, refugee camps and the power of social media to bring about change.
Folks then noted that Malala’s work emphasizes providing girls with access to education in places where there isn’t any. “But women are also underrepresented, even where they have ready access to education,” Folks said.
Malala agreed, noting her disappointment when she came to this realization. “I was really surprised,” she said, adding “we have more women Parliament members in Pakistan than in the UK.” To reverse this, she said the responsibility starts with women. “Women need to first be brave, believe in yourself. Often you are the first person to stop yourself. So don’t stop yourself.”
Malala’s talk was co-sponsored by the Girls Education Collaborative, a Buffalo-based nonprofit that works to equip girls in developing countries to transcend their circumstances, realize their fullest potential and become catalysts for change, and the UB School of Management’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness.