For many in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban, is a symbol of resilience and courage in her fight for the right of young girls to receive an education.
For hardline right-wing groups and conspiracy theorists, she is a controversial figure accused of being a “CIA agent” and having staged the attack on herself.
But for young Pashtun girls in Karachi, Malala’s struggle to get an education in the Swat region amid an insurgency is an inspiration. This part of Malala’s life – documented in a diary published by the BBC – has encouraged many of them to start writing and sharing their own dreams of staying in school.
After the Pakistani Taliban attempted to assassinate Malala last October, a young teacher with the Teach for Pakistan programme started reading Malala’s diary to her pupils at a government-run secondary school in Karachi.
“They had heard other things about her,” recalls Afrah Qureshi, who teaches English to 200 students at the school, in a poor, conservative Pashtun district. “Some said that they had heard she had committed blasphemy, that she had said something about religion. And then I asked them if they had read Malala’s diary.”
Qureshi began reading a page of Malala’s diary to her young pupils every day in her class, and encouraged them to begin writing their own. As they read her diary, their perceptions changed almost entirely. “They loved reading her thoughts,” said Qureshi. “I wanted them to make an informed opinion.”
One 14-year-old girl, Sara*, writes in an elegant, cursive hand and at length about her own aspirations and scenes from everyday life. “I think Malala is a brave and an intelligent girl,” reads the first entry in her own diary, titled A Tribute to Malala.
“The Taliban should not stop her to go to school because every person has their own life. A killer should not attack on her because it is not right … We all should respect our talented people, as we respect Malala.”
Sara said that she had enjoyed reading Malala’s diary and her story in her own words, and she loved writing her own diary. “It improves my English,” she said.
One year on, she says she can’t wait to return to school after the summer holiday is over. “I didn’t like studying so much before, but now I really want to. My younger brothers, my sister and I … we are all reading our books.”
Sara’s diary is a reflection of the perils in the city she lives in – Karachi – where an average of eight people are killed in assassinations and clashes between rival factions every day. “About 8 pm there were two bomb blasts in Karachi and I’m so sad,” she wrote in November. “Why (do) killers kill the people? Do they feel good after killing the people?”
Afrah Qureshi said Sara’s father was incredulous at first, when she had a conversation with him in English. “You must have rote-learned this,” he told his daughter, according to Qureshi. Now, he’s proud of his daughter’s English skills.
Aliya, a 13-year-old pupil, exuberantly wished Qureshi “Happy Malala Day, teacher!”
Aliya said she had been moved by reading Malala’s diary. “I felt very bad that she wasn’t allowed to study. It was only her parents who did a great service to her and helped her do so,” she said.
She rattled off a list of things she wants to do when she’s older, including going to one of the country’s most prestigious private universities. “I want to take science subjects in class 9 and class 10, and then study computer science at LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences), and then I’m going to work for Teach for Pakistan!,” she said, referring to the nationwide movement of graduates who volunteer to teach in under-resourced schools.
At a parent-teacher conference, Qureshi recalled a girl’s father telling her that he was “very worried” about his daughter’s future. “I see that she’s so intelligent and I want to help her, but how?” he said.
Despite the challenges, Teach for Pakistan says these young girls are incredibly eager to learn, and spend their breaks in the classroom so they have an opportunity to closely engage with their teachers. The organisation’s teaching fellows work with the communities and the parents – who they consider the biggest stakeholders – to ensure that they are all on board and involved with the girls’ education. In Aliya and Sara’s school, enrolment has nearly doubled this year as a result. More women are applying to work at Teach for Pakistan, which means that they can place more teachers in girls’ schools.
Another entry by Sara recalls a conversation she had with her sister about what she wanted to do later in life.
“Sometimes I think: what will I become? I like many professions like singer, actor, writer, teacher, poet whatever, but my most favourite is army. If I cannot become something special, I want to become a good person.”
*The names of pupils have been changed to protect their identitiesgns