Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai, a 15 year-old girl from Pakistan is one of my heroes. She is an outspoken advocate for education for girls, and because she took this courageous position, she was nearly killed by gunmen from the Taliban on October 9.  She is currently recovering in a hospital in England and was recently joined there by her parents. This is a story that middle school students can (and should) get into as they learn about the world outside the US.

Here’s a screen capture from a recent article about Malala:

According to this account from CBS news on Oct 26, Malala’s father says she will return to Pakistan and continue to advocate for the education of girls. Why is she risking her life? And why can’t girls in Pakistan — or at least the part of Pakistan where she’s from — go to school?

For middle school students who may not be following Malala’s story (it’s not part of the curriculum, so why teach it, right?) here are two good overview paragraphs from a recent article in the LA Times:

Malala was 11 when she rose to prominence in early 2009, blogging for the BBC Urdu Service about living under Taliban rule. The Taliban had taken over much of the [Swat] valley a year earlier, imposing its will by blowing up schools, banning girls from getting an education and forcing men to grow long beards. Yousafzai defiantly advocated girls’ education in her blog entries, and detailed the atrocities committed by Taliban fighters  in Swat.

Last Tuesday [Oct 9], she was in a van heading home from school in Mingora, Swat’s largest city, when  gunmen on a motorcycle forced the van to stop. One of the men boarded the van and asked the girls inside which of them was Malala. The girls didn’t answer, but the gunman fired his pistol at Malala, hitting her in the head. Two other girls were also shot. One of them remains in critical condition, and the other was not seriously hurt.

Before we go any further, let’s make sure we can pronounce Malala’s name. It looks imposing, but it is not hard to pronounce — it’s pronounced just the way it looks — MA-LA-LA  YOU-SAF-ZAI, where “saf” sounds like the first part of the word “soft”  (minus the “t”) and “zai” rhymes with “sigh.” 

For the rest of this blog entry, let’s learn as much as we can about Malala, but also use her poignant story as a hook so that students will want to learn about the Taliban and Pakistan and the Muslim world.

To start with the concrete, here are a few pictures of Malala before she was shot, courtesy of a Google Images search:

In most of these pictures, she’s wearing a head scarf known as a hijab, a veil worn by many — though not all — of the world’s 800,000,000+ Muslim women (as of 2009, there were about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world; I’m guessing about half are male and half are female).

Here’s a bit more information about a hijab:

As you can see below, one very cool beach-front tribute to Malala — made by a famous sand sculptor on a beach in India — includes her hijab:

If you are interested, there are many more tributes to Malala from around the world.

If you’re a typical middle school student in the US, you don’t know much about Islam or Muslims, and you might not have any friends who wear a hijab. So let’s get some context — how much of the world is Muslim and where do most Muslims live?  Here’s an article from Wikipedia about Muslims in our world today — in the map below, the darkest regions have the highest concentrations of Muslims.

With that basic context, let’s return to Pakistan and unpack those paragraphs from the LA Times account. What questions might middle school students ask as they learn about Malala?

Malala was 11 when she rose to prominence in early 2009, blogging for the BBC Urdu Service about living under Taliban rule.

WHAT IS URDU?  WHAT IS THE TALIBAN?  WHY WAS THE TALIBAN RULING?  IS THE TALIBAN STILL RULING? CAN’T THE GOVERNMENT OF PAKISTAN STOP THE TALIBAN?

The Taliban had taken over much of the [Swat] valley a year earlier, imposing its will by blowing up schools, banning girls from getting an education and forcing men to grow long beards. Yousafzai defiantly advocated girls’ education in her blog entries, and detailed the atrocities committed by Taliban fighters  in Swat.

WHERE IS THE SWAT VALLEY?

Last Tuesday, she was in a van heading home from school in Mingora, Swat’s largest city, when  gunmen on a motorcycle forced the van to stop.

WHERE IS MINGORA?

One of the men boarded the van and asked the girls inside which of them was Malala. The girls didn’t answer, but the gunman fired his pistol at Malala, hitting her in the head. Two other girls were also shot. One of them remains in critical condition, and the other was not seriously hurt.

So let’s start to tackle those questions — WHAT IS URDU?  WHAT IS THE TALIBAN?  WHY WAS THE TALIBAN RULING?  IS THE TALIBAN STILL RULING? CAN’T THE GOVERNMENT OF PAKISTAN STOP THE TALIBAN? WHERE IS THE SWAT VALLEY? WHERE IS MINGORA?

The first and last two questions are the easiest to deal with — Urdu is one of the official languages spoken in Pakistan (the other is English), and here’s a map showing the Swat Valley in the far north of Pakistan:

We can use Google Earth to find Mingora within the Swat Valley…

Actually, this is a great example of teaching students how not to rely on one tool for learning.  I thought Google Earth would be best for this task, but I could not find a good image using Google Earth, so I went for an image search of maps of Mingora. Eventually I ran an image search that looked like this:

I clicked on that map, and found that the map in question came from a 2009 article in the New York Times.

So now, I have not only found out more about Malala’s home town of Mingora by finding a map of it, but I have also learned valuable context about what happened to Mingora in 2009:

In addition to the unpleasant details you can read above, I’ve also learned that Swat used to be a popular scenic resort, which makes sense because as I was looking around there on Google Earth, I saw lots of mountains. As I go back to Google Earth right now, I found a bunch of lovely pictures of Mingora — here’s one:

But that was before the Taliban took over…

Today, the Taliban seem to rule in Swat Valley — that raises these questions: WHAT IS THE TALIBAN?  WHY WAS THE TALIBAN RULING?  IS THE TALIBAN STILL RULING? CAN’T THE GOVERNMENT OF PAKISTAN STOP THE TALIBAN? 

So that this entry does not become too unwieldy, I will blog about the Taliban in my next entry. For those who can’t wait, a good starting point for learning about the Taliban is this Wikipedia article about the Taliban. It’s a long article, and is worth reading and discussing.

At Triangle Learning Community middle school, we will have the flexibility to use Malala’s story as a springboard to learn more about the Taliban and the basics of the modern history of Pakistan and Afghanistan — since say World War II. We will also have the flexibility in our schedule to devote several days to unpacking this story. We’re not tied to an end-of-year test and we can develop research skills, geographic literacy, history context, and communication skills by exploring these issues.

As we started to learn about Pakistan, for example, we’d want to learn a bit about the 2010 flooding there, which put about one fifth of the country under water, killed nearly 2000 people, and caused at least $40 billion in damage to property, infrastructure, and livestock.  The country’s response to that disaster meant it had less resources to devote to fighting the Taliban, which has arguably grown stronger since that flooding.

The point here is that starting to learn about (and empathize with) Malala — whose story is a compelling one and is worth reading about, thinking about, and learning from — gives us a springboard to learn about such broader issues as Pakistan, the Taliban, and the larger Muslim world.

A great starting place to learn more about Malala is this Wikipedia article about her, which is much shorter than the article about the Taliban. It’s worth reading. Again, Wikipedia is a starting point — not a replacement for a scholarly work. Used correctly, Wikipedia will lead us to books about Pakistan, the Taliban, or whatever aspect of this story most captures our attention.

Were I teaching students about Malala, I’d probably have my students read a powerful play from nearly 2500 years ago.  It’s about another courageous girl who risked her life by standing up for what she believed in — her name was Antigone.

P.S. — I have added a 6-minute Google Earth video below that shows Malala’s journey from Pakistan to England. As you can see in the pictures below, Malala is bandaged, but she’s recovering.  The police pictures are from Birmingham, England — she was brought to a hospital there for emergency treatment. The hospital is the circular building behind the police cars — I bring that hospital to life through the video.

The video below shows how Google Earth can help us better empathize with Malala’s trip from Mingora, Pakistan, where she’s from, to one of the world’s top hospitals in Birmingham, England. She first was airlifted to a hospital in Peshawar, then taken to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi.  From there, she was airlifted to England, with a stop for refueling in Dubai (in the UAE).

Apologies about the audio quality – I’m working on a new computer and clearly I need an external microphone.  If you crank the volume, though, it should work.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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One Response to Malala Yousafzai

  1. Steve, I haven’t had time to dig deep into this article. I just read up to the line about “It’s not in the curriculum, so why teach it, right?”

    Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, or maybe I’m just crazy, but I think stories like this one CAN be a part of the curriculum. Why aren’t we putting them in there ourselves? Why are we waiting for permission? Think about it…take a look at one of the huge shifts contained in the Common Core ELA Standards…more informational text. Add into that more critical thinking, more academic vocabulary, more deep reading…this story (and so many others you share with your lucky readers) is all that and more.

    Yes, the standards are NOT a curriculum. But they are an opportunity. And stories like this one are a perfect way to seize the opportunity and inject the curriculum with engaging and important content AND meet the standards…all at once. I dare someone to tell me that a year exploring stories like this one won’t meet standards and won’t lead to deeper learning and improved reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language skills.

    Again, thanks for sharing this post, and every other post that helps people like me who (I’m ashamed to admit) don’t keep up with the news as much as they should. I would love teaching about this girl in my middle or high school classroom. And I think I just found a new hero, too. Thanks!

    –Ben

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