After my leadership lab today, one thing was apparent: Malala Yousafzai is a teenage girl. Just like me. Just like every one of us.
I participated in the “Stand UP: Global Access to Education” leadership lab, and in addition to being engaged in a vibrant and dynamic workshop with Malala Fund representatives on social media and advocacy, teens in the lab had the privilege of viewing “He Named Me Malala,” a 2015 documentary about Malala Yousafzai’s life in Pakistan and her journey into activism. What struck me as special about the documentary was its inclusion of raw, sweet, familial moments of Malala’s life with her family in England.
I particularly remember one moment where she was discussing her relationship with her family. Her younger brothers described her as “naughty,” and they regarded each other sarcastically, with an affectionate sense of humor. She talked about play-fighting with her brothers, and her brothers complained about how long it took for Malala to do her homework. In these moments, Malala came alive, not as the hyper-empowered voice of women and girls that she is often idealized as, but as the 18-year old girl she is, with her flaws and her strengths and her warm smile. She was illuminated with relatable characteristics; as a teenage girl with a constantly joking little brother, I found familiarity in her family act.
Malala’s life, as shown in her documentary, is full of contrasts. It is full of contradictions. One minute she is presenting in full eloquence before the United Nations; the next she is showing an interviewer pictures of cricket and tennis players on whom she has a crush. One day she is meeting with Barack Obama to talk through the implications of drone strikes; the next she is giggling in class, navigating the complexities of high-school friendships. A favorite detail of mine was when Malala went through her test papers and showed the videographer tests with Cs and Ds plastered across the top. Even Malala Yousafzai, girls’ education advocate extraordinaire, messes up in school sometimes. Just like me. Just like every one of us.
But what message can we derive from this? What purpose is there in knowing that Malala Yousafzai falls for boys and gets bad grades sometimes? I believe that when thinking of celebrities and major policymakers, we often alienate ourselves from them. We respect their work while see it as unattainable for ourselves, even though they too are flawed and insecure. When we see someone like Malala admitting to these traits and showcasing them juxtaposed with her success, is sparks something empowering. It lets us know that despite our failures, we have the potential to reach incredible heights. It lets us know that we, her fellow teens, can not just overcome, but also embrace our perceived shortcomings to achieve something significant.
For above all, above her speaking engagements, above her appearances, Malala is but a person with a passion. Just like me. Just like every one of us.
Rachel Altman, NRE (D.C. Council), IC 2016 Press Corps