But there was no decision to make. This was my calling. Some powerful force had come to dwell inside me, something bigger and stronger than me. —Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai, as the world knows, was shot in the head by the Taliban on October 9, 2012, as she rode home on the school bus in the Swat Valley, Pakistan. Malala was fifteen at the time. She survived the attack, recuperated in England, and has continued her education. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” 

Can a child, an adolescent, a young person—make a world-changing decision? Is someone ever too young? 

Let’s take a look at Malala’s story, because none of this came out of the blue. The “struggle” the Nobel Committee cited, was a decision that was so deeply embedded into her character that, at age fifteen, it had already become her way of life. And continues to be. 

Seemingly from birth, Malala loved education. Her biographical material makes much of the fact that she sought to emulate her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who was so dedicated to education that he had founded his own school, the one she attended. Such “private” schools are not uncommon in Pakistan. 

But Ziauddin’s school and his outspoken daughter became special targets of the Taliban. The fundamentalist group had issued an edict against educating girls and death threats against the entire family (mother Toor Pekai Yousafzai and two sons). The school was forced to close for a time and had re-opened shortly before Malala was shot. 

You might say that the child was merely following the example—or the dictates—of the father (who was supported in all endeavors by the mother). That the child made no decisions on her own. That happens in families all the time. I can think of many examples in my own life—involving my parents and the decisions they made for me when I was young, and about how my wife and I did the same for our sons. None of these decisions involved defying the Taliban and bringing danger to our family. But, that may not be the right way to look at what Ziauddin did. Were his decisions part of doing what parents claim we always try to do—leading by example? 

Do you ever think about the phrase “an accident of birth”? It means that none of us are responsible for the circumstances of our birth—who our parents are, our family, our nationality or state or town, our genetic make-up, economic status and so on. 

Among the things that Malala was not responsible for: That she was a first-born daughter in a culture that values boys over girls; that she was born into a troubled country being over-run by violent extremists. But it was also an accident of birth that she had two parents who were, by all accounts, as dedicated to her welfare, education, and growth as they were to that of her two younger brothers. It seems to me that Malala took what she was given and decided to run with it. 

By the time she was shot in 2012, Malala had shown by her own example that she recognized her “accident of birth.” Her dedication to education for girls was in fact her own decision based on parental example. Consider her words, written just a year later in her autobiography:

“I was very lucky to be born to a father who respected my freedom of thought and expression and made me part of his peace caravan and a mother who not only encouraged me but my father too in our campaign for peace and education.”

At an even younger age than fifteen, Malala was already an ardent activist. She blogged for the BBC on the oppressions of life under the Taliban and was the subject of a New York Times documentary. She made speeches often, including one entitled “How dare the Taliban take away my right to an education.” The year before she was shot, she won both the International Children’s Peace Prize and Pakistan’s first Youth Peace Prize. As the Taliban’s noose ever tightened around her country, her family, and her safety, Malala’s outspokenness and visibility grew. As she wrote in her autobiography, “I decided I wasn’t going to cower in fear of [the Taliban’s] wrath.” 

In the years since she survived the Taliban assassination attempt, Malala has become a global symbol for the cause of education for girls specifically and for the welfare of all children. Not even a year after she was shot, she addressed the “Youth Takeover” at the United Nations. Two years almost to the day after she was shot, the Nobel Committee announced that she would share the 2014 Peace Prize with Kailash Satyarthi, who made his name with international peaceful protests on behalf of children. Even with constant visibility while traveling the world to event after event, she completed the studies necessary to be accepted in 2017 into Oxford University (which fact she announced on her new Twitter account). Also in 2017, Malala was designated a United Nations Messenger of Peace “to help raise awareness of the importance of girls’ education.”

Malala is still enveloped in the support of her family, which left Pakistan to settle in the UK. The Economist, noting that “Pakistani education has long been atrocious,” included the following in a detailed and dismal examination of the current status:

“From 2007 to 2015 there were 167 attacks by Islamic terrorists on education institutions . . .  When it controlled the Swat River valley in the north of the country, the Pakistani Taliban closed hundreds of girls’ schools. When the army retook the area it occupied dozens of them itself.”

Malala has written two books. The first, I Am Malala, was published a year after her shooting and tells, with the help of writer Christina Lamb, of her early life in Pakistan and the event that put her onto a new trajectory. Published in 2017, the second book is for children, Malala’s Magic Pencil. In it, young Malala yearns for a special pencil that would let her do all sorts of special, interesting things, including drawing “a lock on my door, so my brothers couldn’t bother me.” I think every child wants a lock like that. Eventually, she describes what we adults will recognize as an intention, a determination, a decision: “I knew then that if I had a magic pencil, I would use it to draw a better world, a peaceful world.” 

Time will tell us how Malala’s decisions as a girl, a teenager, a young adult, and into the future will all play out, how world-changing they will be. My hope is that the answer is— immensely.

Malala’s story offers all of us one overarching lesson about decision-making that will help us all lead better lives:

If you are a parent or other adult in a position to influence children and young people, remember how important your own example is. The decisions you make on behalf of others may turn out to be the template that helps form their lives. 

If that’s all you glean, that’s enough. But there are many other lessons to take:

1. Have courage to do the right thing, whether it is large or small. 

2. Understand you may be attacked and plan for that in advance. I mean physically attacked, as well as the more expected verbal criticisms. 

3. Recognize you may be a symbol for others and prepare for that in ways they will embrace and admire. And behave that way. 

4. Follow your decision. Give it a chance to shape your life. 

5. Do not give up.  

6. Depend on each other. Know whom you can trust, and be that trustworthy person to others to the best of your ability. 

7. Seek education and take every other opportunity to broaden your knowledge of the world and its people.

Excerpted from DECISIONS by Robert L. Dilenschneider. Reprinted with permission from Kensington Books. Copyright © 2020 Robert L. Dilenschneider.

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