Shiza Shahid: My Journey with Malala
Hello everyone. Thank you for being here. I’m so honored and humbled to have this opportunity.
Truthfully when I was asked to speak here I was so nervous, and then I thought, the theme of today is ‘Start Now’, so perhaps looking back at my journey I can share three lessons that I’ve learned that have been invaluable to how I’ve lived my life. And I hope that these are useful to those of you who are starting something now as well.
The first lesson is that knowledge is best acquired through human connection. I was born in Pakistan, my parents came from a humble origin, my father was orphaned when he was 7 years old, and my mother was married to my father before she ever got to go to college.
So my parents worked very very hard and gave us the best education that we could afford. That meant that I had a privileged upbringing. But all around me, I could sense that something in my society was crumbling. There was rising poverty, gender imbalance, extremism and religious radicalism and terrorism. I didn’t understand it, but I thought, perhaps I can go to those who live this truth.
So at the age of 14, I began volunteering in women’s prisons — in those prisons where women who had been convicted of crime but also their children. Children born in captivity who had never seen the outside world. They had no one else. I understood there what it meant to be discarded before you were ever born. And the conditions that lead to hatred, violence and resentment.
When I was 16, my best friend died in an earthquake, because the building in which he lived was made from faulty material. I dealt with my grief by spending the next year volunteering in an earthquake relief camp. I was the only female volunteer, so that meant that any issue relating to women or girls was brought to me.
For the next year I was taking women to the hospital because breast milk had frozen inside them, or spending the morning inside a hot tent, chatting away with girls, knowing that we could not go outside because their fathers and brothers had told them they could not be visible. That’s when I understood what it meant to be a woman in the hardest circumstances in the world feeling that my very existence is a source of shame.
The lessons that I learned in these places, from these people, I could never have found in school or in books, and these were the lessons that guided my decision and my character for the rest of my life. So to those of you who are seeking knowledge, I urge you, go to the heart of it. Find the people who live that reality everyday and approach them with empathy. You will learn more than you can ever imagine.
The second lesson that I learned in life, was that you have the power to influence anything that you are truly passionate about. When I was 18 years old, I got a scholarship to go to Stanford University. I was thrilled, my world opened up for me. My mind brimmed with new ideas and possibilities and I finally had a frame of reference with which to understand my own madness. My professors told me I was a social entrepreneur, and I finally felt like I fit in.
But on the other side, my society was descending into chaos day by day. Almost everyday there was news of a terrorist attack. Radicalism was seeping through society. I didn’t know what to do but I felt fearful. I would sleep with my phone on full volume, waiting that dreaded phone call that would tell me that my family had been hurt.
In my sophomore year, while watching the news, I found a video. A young girl from the Swat Valley, only 11 years old, was speaking out against the violence. In her area, the Taliban had banned female education, but she didn’t want to stop going to school. So when no one was speaking, she did, and she said, “Save my school. This is my request to the world. Save my Swat Valley.”
Her voice haunted me. She lived only three hours from where I grew up and it could have been me. I knew I had to help her but I didn’t know how. So I reached out to her father, I said to him, “What can we do?”
That summer I returned back to Pakistan with a plan. I would host a summer camp, and I would bring to that summer camp girls like Malala. I would give them access to the world that I knew. To the networks, the resources, the people, the mentors that could help them be more effective activists. And that’s what I did. It was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life. And the girl who I arranged all of this for was no other than 11-year-old Malala.
What this taught me was that anything I wanted to change, I had the power to affect. Sitting in my dorm room at Stanford, sipping my Jamba Juice, I had found a way to affect the life of a girl in the Swat Valley. This girl would go on to become the most powerful voice for peace in the entire world only 5 years later.
The truth is, there are no superheroes. There’s just us! We are the ones that we have been waiting for. So the third and final lesson that I’d love to share with you, is that there are critical moments in your life where you have to make a decision about who you are, and in those moments let your heart guide you.
It was 2012, I had graduated from Stanford, I had an offer to join McKinsey & Company, which was a dream job for any Stanford graduate. So I took the job and I flew to Dubai. It was an exciting year, I learned exponentially, and I knew that as long as I stayed on track my career was secure.
One year in, I had just landed in Egypt. I turned on my phone and I saw a text that would move the Earth. It said, “Malala has been shot.” I remember sitting in that plane and repeating in my head, “Oh my god, what have they done! What have they done!” They had stopped her on her way back from school and shot her in the head at point-blank range. She was critically wounded. Everyday we prayed that she would make it through the night.
But it wasn’t just me and others who cared about Malala who were grieving. Across the world, people had been shaken by her story. There were vigils, protests in all parts of the world. And when people weren’t praying or hoping, they were angry. They were angry that in the 21st century, a girl could be shot in the head for going to school. I knew then that what Malala had inspired was the beginning of a movement that would change the face of our world.
I left my career and flew to Birmingham to be with Malala when she was airlifted there for treatment. I arrived the same day as her family. She survived, and that to me is the greatest miracle that I have ever witnessed or will ever witness. It is what I remain grateful for everyday: that Malala survived with no brain damage.
But as I sat with her and told her, “Malala, so many people are praying for you and they want to help you. What do I tell them?”
She looked at me and said, “I’m okay. Can you ask them to help the other girls?”
That’s when I knew that not only had Malala inspired a movement, but she was going to continue her struggle no matter what it took against all odds. But now she had a greater platform than ever before. She was no longer fighting a battle in the Swat Valley, she was fighting a battle for girls all over the world. And she needed people she could trust to help her.
I had a decision to make then. Would I go back to my job? Or would I stay with Malala and try and figure out what this meant? Try and help her change the world and get girls in school. I wasn’t ready, I was terrified, but it was now or never and I took the leap. And honestly speaking, I’ve never looked back.
You see there are moments when we make decisions that shape our destiny. And in those moments we have to listen to our intuition. Our heart already knows where we are meant to go, it will never lead us astray.
I’d like to end my talk with this statement that has come to embody this movement that Malala has inspired. And I end with it because it holds one — well, it holds all of these truths for me. It’s a statement that people across the world have said without us asking. And it is, “I am Malala.”
So I end with that saying, I’m Malala, not because I am her, but because I understand what it means to be a girl who struggles, due to that human connection, and because I too struggle. I am Malala, because I take control of my destiny and I decide to change what I believe must be changed. And I’m Malala, because I make that decision today, and everyday, from the core of my heart.