Lessons in courage for Canadians from Malala Yousafzai

Steve Mertl
Lessons in courage for Canadians from Malala Yousafzai

I've been thinking about how to talk about Friday's riveting address by Malala Yousafzai to the United Nations in a way to make it relevant to Canadians.

But then I thought, what could be more relevant to our country than a universal example of sublime courage.

The Pakistani schoolgirl, who against long odds celebrated her 16th birthday on Friday, made a powerful plea that all children's right to free education be guaranteed and voiced her support for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's Global Education First Initiative. The world body declared it Malala Day.

Malala's composure before a UN hall packed with 500 youth delegates and diplomats belied her age and the fact that less than a year ago she was fighting for her life.

Her outspoken advocacy for education for Pakistani girls had made her a target for the Taliban in her native Swat Valley. An assassin from the militant Islamist terror group attacked her school bus last Oct. 9, shooting her in the head at close range and injuring fellow students.

[ Related: Malala celebrates birthday with UN speech demanding free education ]

After several operations in a British hospital, followed by months of recovery, she landed on this UN podium, where Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education, wished her a happy birthday. Words, he said, the "Taliban never wanted you to hear," the Toronto Star reported.

Besides trying to murder a teenage girl, the Taliban has destroyed hundreds of schools in Pakistan. It was in this climate that Malala, supported by her family, advocated equal access to education for females. After the assassination attempt and devastating wound, few would have blamed her if she passed the torch to someone else.

The problem of access is not limited to Pakistan, or to girls. A report released Friday by UNESCO, the UN education and cultural organization, and Save the Children found 57 million children around the world were not in school in 2011, half of them in countries dealing with conflict, the Globe and Mail reported. That number is down from 60 million but the figure is still daunting.

It's easy to lose the content of Malala's message by watching her speech. You become struck by her poise, the fact that she's there at all, the measured cadence of her words that recall some of the past heroes she invoked, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

But if you read a text of her speech, you can't escape the force of her message: The book and the pen can challenge the gun; education is a weapon against fear and ignorance. Malala forgave her would-be killer. The attack would not send her — and those like her — cowering in silence, she said.

"Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same."

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I hate the now-cliche saying from Friedrich Nietzsche that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger (it's even been reduced to a pop song). For one thing, it's often not true. But in Malala's case it is.

So how does Malala's story relate to Canadians? Certainly we admire great courage and perseverance in the face of physical challenges. Think of Terry Fox, grinding out a one-legged marathon every day despite great pain.

Malala's story embodies those qualities and clearly many Canadians identify with it. Some have embraced her message, like students in Milton, Ont., who want a school named after her.

Maybe the best way to honour her, though, would be to remember her essential message, to look around us and see who in this country lacks the access to education she's talking about.