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Malala Yousafzai at the Oxford Union

MALALA – despite an impressive termcard, none of the Oxford Union’s speakers this Michaelmas are as well-known as her. Mononyms are for the super-famous, and Malala’s name has become synonymous with the fight for women’s education around the world.

Speaking in a packed chamber on 1st November, Malala discussed her work as an education activist and her own experience as a student at Oxford University.

Born in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai went to school in Swat Valley until the Pakistan Taliban set limits on girls’ education in 2009. After that, she began to advocate for women’s rights, while attending school in secret, before being shot in the head by the Taliban for her work in 2012.

Surviving the attack, she moved to the UK to receive medical care and continue her activism, having been catapulted onto the international stage. In 2014, Malala became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University between 2017-2020.

Malala began the talk by reflecting on her time as a student at Oxford. She told the chamber she had many happy memories of her studies, but also acknowledged the pressures of Oxford life. “I remember nearly giving up, nearly deciding this is too hard”, she told the chamber, when asked about the challenges of balancing her studies with ongoing work as an activist. 

However, she also laughingly agreed that “[Oxford] is the best university in the world”, adding that the chance to study there was an amazing opportunity.

She then spoke about her ongoing work to ensure that all girls have access to education. From the barriers posed by climate change to hostile regimes, she described our current times as, “a global education emergency”. But calling for access to schools is not Malala’s only aim. “It’s just as important to ensure that schools actually are educating girls”, she said. “There are instances of the Taliban regime, for example, trying to change the curriculum… but when you take away essential skills like critical thinking and science, it becomes indoctrination and not education.”

Malala’s interview was in conversation with Oxford Union President Ahmad Nawaz, who himself survived an attack by the Taliban in 2014. Nawaz asked Malala about her experience of working with other activists and large institutions like the UN. “It’s really important to platform those affected by whatever issue is being discussed, not just talk about people as numbers and figures”, she said, before adding  “I’m not a young girl anymore. … I think it’s really important to bring new young people to the stage”.

Malala noted that politicians around the world are often ready to listen to her, but many other activists aren’t heard if she doesn’t endorse them. “Now, when I’m given a ten minute speech, I try to talk for two minutes and then give the rest of the time to a woman or girl who has experienced those issues,” she said.

Other questions from the Union concerned Malala’s views on a wide range of pressing global issues. When asked about her opinion on enforcing or banning hijabs for Muslim women, Malala said: “There should not be a state telling women what they should wear or what they shouldn’t wear… We never tell men what is a more acceptable dress code. It’s important that we realise it’s a matter of human liberty and human freedom that people make that decision for themselves.”

She was also questioned about her plans for the future, with one of the talk’s attendees asking if she still intends to work in Pakistani politics, a childhood ambition. Although Malala’s long-term plans are uncertain, however, an entry into politics now seems further off the cards. “My current focus is girl’s education” she said, citing the benefits of working as an activist outside the constraints of a political system. For now, Malala will continue advocating for girls in developing countries, especially areas affected by war and climate emergencies.

Towards the end of the talk, Malala also spoke about her friendship with fellow activist Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who started the Fridays for Future movement against climate change. “I saw her two days ago,” she said, “ and I did strongly encourage her to apply to Oxford University!”

Members of the Oxford Union called Malala an inspiration, saying she had encouraged them to talk about global issues and given them confidence in their own voices.

She left the chamber to lasting applause, with President Nawaz saying he’d “never seen a more electric audience.”

Image credit: Southbank centre

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