Malala Yousafzai on Education, Islamophobia, and the New Wave of Youth Activism

To mark the 21st Century making it through its teen years, the #20teens is a series from Teen Vogue celebrating the best in culture, politics, and style from the last decade.
Source: TeenVOGUE

She survived. And went on to become one of the most famous teenagers in the world, if not in history, building a global movement to

demand girls’ right to an education.

As we close out the #20teens, it has become clear to us that the defining characteristic of the last 10 years has been the rise of youth activism. Rooted in public actions, protest and good ‘ol grassroots organizing, movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for Fifteen, March for Our Lives, Slut Walk, Youth Climate Strike, and others—have all been youth-led. They have spoken truth to power and opened our eyes to the many injustices young people are facing around the world.

The last decade was a decade of youth activism, but the next one is going to be about youth change-making

And these are not your grandparents’ organizers — they are intersectional; they are aware of class and race dynamics and binary gender systems’ they are inclusive and “woke AF.” They also grew up with Twitter accounts, armed with the tools to build broad-based support like no other generation before them. And while they will all argue that it is not about them personally, their ranks include many teen girls who have led the charge: Greta Thunberg, Emma González, Mari Copeny, Edna Chavez, Xiye Bastida, Jamie Margolin, and Naomi Wadler, to name only a few. And in many ways, first among them was Malala.

After recovering from the attempted assassination, she went on to become a global activist, with the goal of securing girls’ access to education. She cofounded the Malala Fund. She wrote a book. At 17 years old, she was the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And after having done all that, she was accepted to Oxford University, where she is studying philosophy, politics, and economics. She turned her trauma into an opportunity to position herself as arguably the most famous citizen activist in the world.

Malala is now 22 years old. Saying her life has been incredible feels understated; there is a quality to her that is beyond what words can describe, a profile in courage unmatched. As we put together our final package for the decade rooted in the brilliant, world-changing demands of teens across the world, we knew there was no better person to sit down and reflect on this wild decade with.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length).

Teen Vogue: The last time we talked, you were just going into your second year at Oxford. Now you are a senior. How is it going?

Malala Yousafzai: It’s going well. I think time goes by really quickly when you’re in university. It’s fun. You’re excited in your first year, you are meeting new friends from all different backgrounds, and you’re joining societies and you’re playing cricket and you’re going to the Oxford Union and hearing different speakers and you’re running late to lectures…. It’s an amazing, different life that you are experiencing for the first time, and it’s really exciting, and then you’re hit by your final year and you’re like, “No, what’s happening?”

TV: Haha, I can only imagine. You went into international fame at a very young age. You could have skipped college if you wanted to. You could have potentially gone onto the lecture circuit or you could have continued to write books or continued your work with the Malala Fund. But education is so important to you. Why, for you, has it been education, and why did you decide it was so important for you to go to college?MY: Education has been part of my journey since I was growing up. And I saw how many girls in my own community were not able to go to school. And my father was one of those special feminists in our community who let his daughter go to school. And then, when I was only 11 years old, things suddenly changed for us that this extremist group had occupied Swat Valley and they banned girls education. And I realized that if I cannot go to school, my life could be early child marriage, becoming a mother, becoming a grandmother, and not having the opportunity to be myself, to explore the opportunities that are available out there that a boy would have access to. But I would not. So it’s my own personal story. But also I have learned, I have met many girls around the world, and I have learned how education acts as a source of protection for them. At the same time, you want to look at its advantages for the community, for the economy. It’s amazing that when you educate girls, it adds up to $30 trillion to the world economy. It creates more jobs. It helps us protect our climate. It reduces poverty; it reduces the likelihood of wars in these developing countries. So when you look at those advantages, then you say, “We have to invest in girls’ education.” So I know it from my personal story, but I also — the research shows us that is the best investment that you can make.

TV: Greta Thunberg was just named Time Person of the Year at 16 years old. Only six years ago, that was you. This decade has really been defined by teen girl activists. And in many ways, you were one of the first internationally globally recognized teen activists. What have you learned in the six years since the first moment that you hit the global stage?

MY: Six years ago, I was receiving global support, and I was happy that this time they were listening to young people. Sometimes in rooms with decision-makers, they don’t have any young people at the table; they don’t even have women, let alone young people. So just to have the voices of young people present there, just to have women being present at those tables, I think it’s a huge difference. And we have seen huge progress over the last few years, and now to see that young girls like Emma [González] and Greta are coming forward and they’re talking about climate change, they are talking about gun violence, and they’re talking about these different issues that are impacting all of us and especially what’s going to affect the future generations. There are hundreds and thousands of women and girls in all parts of the world who are standing up. Some of them we don’t even know — their names would never be known — but they’re changing their communities.

TV: One of the things I think that has been so powerful about you, Greta, Emma, and others is you all say this one thing: “This is not about me.” And we know that’s true just from the sheer numbers of young people hitting the streets lately. How did you feel when you saw 4 million young people hitting the streets for climate change?

TV: One thing I’ve learned from working at Teen Vogue is younger generations are getting more comfortable with talking about mental health. You have overcome something that was extremely traumatic, to unbelievably positive results. Can you talk a little bit about your process and how you grappled with it? I mean, obviously there was the physical healing, but what was the emotional healing? What was that journey for you?

MY: For me, what really helped me in my healing and recovery, both physically and mentally, was the support of people. Whether that was the nurses and doctors or whether those were the letters and cards and the messages that I was receiving from people all around the world.

And I think we all have to take care of ourselves, right? We are living in an era where we have new tools, new things coming forward that we had not had before. From social media to technology, there’s competition and selfies, and all these things are spreading. So it’s important for us to take care of ourselves. Make sure you’re healthy and fine and getting enough sleep. Yeah, I’m including myself in that.TV: Have you struggled with mental health issues at all, or depression or anything like that?MY: Yes, but I have always asked for help. That’s the key that I would say to everybody. Even if you feel “I don’t think the issue is too big. I don’t think I’m in a depression or anxiety yet” or “I don’t think it’s [bad enough to] still go out and ask for help.” I always tell things to my parents. I always say things to somebody that I know closely, some of my friends or somebody in school. Just to make sure, right, I would have nothing — there’s nothing to worry about, but still go out and share it.There are so many things in the world; a lot of them are really depressing. It’s really sad what’s happening. And I think for us, what we need to do is remain positive because our sadness can’t change the world. Our sadness can’t really help us resolve those issues.

TV: Where does religion and culture fit into all of this? Because some of the circumstances you were talking about, they are people that have exploited religion in the service of silencing women. So where does religion fall for you?

MY: I do political science. So for me, we need to look at the statistics and look at the correlation and all those things. So we don’t have data [on this]. But using intuition, what I have seen, even if you look at the example of terrorists like Taliban, who are mostly men, all of them are men. So there’s this element of patriarchy and misogyny. But then [there’s] the tool and the message that they’re delivering that through religion. Religion has a very strong force for them to deliver the narrative, reach out to women and everybody to justify that their message is right. So religion acts as a tool for them to support their message. But I think also in this sense, religious scholars need to come forward and they need to tell people that whether it’s Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, any other religion, that religion is for the equal rights of everyone.

TV: It’s hard to talk about religion without also then talking about Islamophobia. What are your thoughts on the rise of Islamophobia around the world and especially in Europe?

MY: Some of the readings that I’ve done, it shows that you see Islamophobia more in areas where the community is less diverse…. So when the communities are more diverse, you would not see as much Islamophobia, [e.g.] in New York or in London. So that is an element of it, how much that society is integrated. And people need to engage with and talk to each other. My dad often says that “If you want to know about a Muslim person, don’t know it through a TV channel, but go and knock on their door and as your neighbor, and go and ask them and have a conversation with them.” So I think that’s important.

TV: Well, the representation thing is an important one, right? How do you feel about Muslim representation in television, in the movies? Are you seeing any good examples of it?

MY: Well, we rarely see good examples of that, and I think that’s unfortunate when it comes to the representation of minorities or Muslims or black people or even women. And I think in that sense, there’s still a lot that needs to be done. It’s unfortunate when you see these things, but also, at the same time, what gives me hope is that people are becoming aware of this and they want to challenge it. And I hope to see that more Muslim young people come forward and present and share their voice, share their stories that they are also known as equals to everybody else and have a normal life. So let’s give space to Muslim people, and they will share their stories and they’ll tell you what’s wrong and what’s right and what needs to change in their community and what shouldn’t change.

TV: So we’re reflecting on the last 10 years on youth activism. What do the next 10 hold?

MY: You mentioned how youth activism has risen in the last decade, and what has given me hope is that the last decade was a decade of youth activism, but the next one is going to be about youth change-making, and that’s what gives me hope. It’s like we have done our activism; we have done enough to raise our voice. And I think the next step is now let’s make the change, let’s be the change-makers, let’s get more involved in this. I’m excited for that, to be the change-maker, and do more for girls’ education, to ensure that all girls can have the opportunity to go to school, to go to universities, just like I have. And many of us have that opportunity, and we all are aware that if we had not had the opportunity of being in school, learning, that we would have been somewhere else. So it’s important that we recognize that, that we are grateful for that, but we also have other girls just like us to have that right.

TV: All right. I do have one more question. Anything on your streaming list right now?

MY: Hasan Minhaj and Green Eggs and Ham. That’s all you need.

Source: TeenVOGUE

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