Malala Yousafzai was born to a family of rebels. After surviving a shot to the head by a member of the Taliban, Malala became a vocal champion for oppressed women and girls and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

On the day Malala Yousafzai was born, her father did an unusual thing: he celebrated. 

Although celebrating the birth of a baby girl might sound natural in other cultures, when a baby boy is born in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, the Pashtun people celebrate wildly. The baby is welcomed with a kind of impromptu holiday—friends and family swarm the home, congratulating the parents and lavishing them with gifts, and the streets echo with celebratory rifle fire. The crib is filled with dried fruits, coins, and sweets (which are considered tokens of hope and prosperity) from a parade of adoring visitors. Finally, the boy’s name is added to the family tree. His birth becomes the new chapter in the family’s proud history. 

However, the birth of a Swat girl brings different traditions. There are usually no congratulations, no gunshots, and no gifts. The house is solemn and quiet, except for the cries of the newborn. To some, the birth of a Pashtun girl is a disappointment. 

Malala’s father, Ziauddin, was different. He didn’t just love his baby in spite of her being a girl; he loved her because she was a girl. Early on, Ziauddin saw a power in her tiny fists, her speechless mouth, and bright eyes. He had big dreams for his daughter, so why not celebrate?

Against convention, Ziauddin honored his daughter with the gift of a strong name. Looking at his bright-eyed firstborn, he knew her name immediately: Malala. Her namesake was the Pashtuns’ greatest heroine, Malalai of Maiwand. 

Malalai was an Afghan teenager who, during the Second Anglo-Afghan war in 1880, fearlessly burst onto the battlefield during a harrowing clash and made a rallying call to the troops. Malalai was killed on that field, but the soldiers attributed their victory to her inspiring words. Malala’s father named his daughter after this amazing girl—one who defied her traditional role to enter the battlefield, and whose words could sway an army. 

Next, he gave her the dignity of adding Malala’s name to the family tree. Malala, defiantly, would be the first girl named to the centuries-old family record. Little did Ziauddin know, this girl would change more than just his own family’s history.

Malala was still just a child when, like her Pashtun heroine namesake, she began using her words to inspire change. In the Swat Valley, it wasn’t just baby girls who were disregarded. The city’s school-age girls were discouraged from getting an education and many considered educating girls to be improper. 

Education became particularly dangerous when the Taliban arrived. The terrorist group wanted Pakistan to be ruled under their strict interpretation of Islamic Law, which could be unbearably rigid and punishable by violence, or worse. The Taliban strictly forbid girls from attending school. She wasn’t just a girl defying Taliban rule by going to school; her father ran a school for girls. The Yousafzai family, with their outspoken daughter and illegal school, stood for everything the Taliban hated. 

Malala and Ziauddin had to make a decision: keep quiet and run the school under the radar, or speak against the oppressive Taliban regime by advocating loudly for girls’ education. For the two, there was no other choice. Her father would keep the doors open for as long as he could, while Malala would stand up for her friends, cousins, and neighbors—girls who were capable of so much, if only they had an education. 

Malala made her first public speech at age 11, and its title was a challenge: “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education?”

She stared down the cameras and scolded the Taliban, saying, “You may stop me from going to school, but you will not stop me from learning.” Her words spread like fire, and soon all of Pakistan knew Malala’s name. 

After making the national news with her fierce challenge to the Taliban, Malala was invited to blog for the BBC, using the pseudonym Gul Makai for her safety. Launched in January 2009, “Diary of a Pakistani schoolgirl” detailed Malala’s education experience in Swat, and shared her community’s struggle with people all over the world. Even simple moments, like getting ready for school, could have serious consequences for girls under Taliban rule. One week, Malala wrote, “I was getting ready for school and about to wear my uniform when I remembered that our principal had told us not to wear uniforms—and come to school wearing normal clothes instead.” Her readers empathized with the pain of this mystery schoolgirl. The eyes of the world were now on Swat. 

In January 2008, a New York Times documentary team began following 11-year-old Malala and her father to show the world what life was like for a Swat family living under the pressure of the Taliban. But unlike writing a blog under a fake name, the documentary would expose Malala to the very people who wanted to silence her. Her enemies would be able to identify their target as the girl with the defiant grin, who was now broadcasting her message of gender equality to the world.

Malala visits with President Barack Obama and family in 2013. Photo courtesy of the White House/Wikipedia

As the cameras followed Malala, Swat became increasingly dangerous. The Pakistani army was fighting to remove the terrorists from her beloved valley, and the ensuing violent clashes made the Yousafzai home quake and tremble. Explosions rattled the classroom as the girls tried to study. Taliban men followed, harassed, and intimidated women and girls who they believed to be breaking the law, just by listening to music or watching television, attending school, or (as in Afghanistan) wearing the wrong head covering

Swat was a warzone. While Malalai had stormed the battleground to rally the troops, Malala and her family knew this was not their fight. The Yousafzais fled to the country for their safety. After three long months, the Pakistani army declared that the Taliban had been mostly removed and it was safe to return to Swat. 

Malala was relieved to be home and reunited with her books, schoolmates, and teachers. The war felt like a bad dream and she had finally woken up. But the nightmare wasn’t over. In October of 2012, 15-year-old Malala boarded the bus home from school and sat chatting with her friends. The bus stopped, and she looked up to see a masked man holding a gun. There was no time to think. No time to act.

“Who is Malala?” he asked the girls.

“No one said anything, but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered,” Malala wrote

Then, nothing. Ten days later, Malala woke up in a country she’d never been to, with people she’d never met, and a face in the mirror that she did not recognize. She learned that after she was identified, the gunman had fired three bullets and shot her in the head (the two other bullets hit the girls next to Malala, Shaiza and Kainat). He had orders from Taliban leaders to murder the girl who was making such noise about girls’ rights.

Malala’s injuries were so life-threatening that she had been placed in a coma and sent to a hospital in Birmingham, England. The road to recovery would be long. But with her father, mother, and brothers by her side, Malala would regain the strength to continue her fight. 

After she was injured, Malala was faced with a new choice. Should the family return to their beloved home in the Swat Valley to start a quiet life out of the spotlight? Or, should they make a new home in Birmingham, where Malala would be able to safely continue her activism? 

Malala would stay in England and use the cameras, interviews, awards, and admiration to bring attention to the issue of girls’ education—not just for the girls of Pakistan, but for the 130 million girls worldwide who are out of school today. Girl’s rights would become her battlefield.

Malala’s voice has never wavered. In 2013, Malala established the Malala Fund, an organization that aims to give all girls a secondary education. She addressed the United Nations in a speech that earned a standing ovation. She even met with President Barack Obama and spoke against his drone strikes. She has opened a girls’ school, written books, and enrolled at Oxford University, where she studies philosophy, politics and economics. In 2014, Malala became the youngest Nobel laureate for her advocacy for children’s rights. 

From the day that her father added Malala’s name to the family tree, she has lived a story that no one could have written for her. In an interview with the New York Times, Malala said, “I don’t think that ‘the girl who was shot by the Taliban in the head’—I don’t think it’s my story.” 

The Taliban tried to take away her pen, but Malala’s story remains the one that she is writing. One of a girl, now a woman, who will stop at nothing to give girls the education that they deserve—to show them how they can be the authors of their own life. 

Hannah Sherk is a Californian-turned-Portlander who traded her flip-flops for hiking boots. She teaches middle school language arts, where she is surrounded daily by amazing rebel girls. She loves teaching because she gets to help kids see themselves as the heroes of their own stories. When she’s not writing or editing, you might find her riding horses, swimming in the Willamette, or matchmaking her friends with a good book.