October 21, 2013, by Yvonne Teoh

Malala Yousafzai: Words To Remember

Disclaimer: The author of this article is no expert on Malala Yousafzai, the current state of education in Pakistan or on psychology in general.

“You must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education”.

The words above were uttered by one Malala Yousafzai during her interview at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in reply to a question about how she would react if she was confronted by the one man who had shot her in the head. Malala’s reply is a stark contrast to what most of us, especially me, would normally choose to do in that particular situation. I would probably run away as fast as my little feet could carry me, while screaming like a little girl. Those that possess a little more courage in their heart might opt for the option that involves them directly confronting the perpetrator and using any amount of force to prevent any gunshots. Those two options might seem somewhat reductive and constricting but after all, isn’t that what we have always been taught or at least, exposed to: that when confronted by something potentially dangerous, we are innately programmed to either fight or flee.

If you aren’t aware, Malala Yousafzai is an extremely brave and vocal sixteen year-old, who hails from the town of Mingora in the Swat District of Pakistan. Malala is a huge advocate for rights to education, especially for women; she has criticized the decision by radical Islamists to close girl’s schools when she was 11, blogged for BBC Urdu where she described her life under Taliban rule while constantly promoting her agenda regarding girls education (10 October 12). Due to her growing popularity and her outspoken personality, she was later given death threats by the Taliban leaders. They later acted on their words and on October 9th, 2012, an assassination attempt was made on her life. A hired gunman shot her, the bullet entered the left side of her forehead and ended up in her shoulder, a wound that severely injured her facial nerve and her hearing (Husain, 2013). She has since then recovered swiftly and has not only grown to be more vocal but has also been more determined to secure education for all citizens of the world.

Malala has become, as Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif puts it, “a beacon life for and an example to be emulated by others for education” (Austin & Yusufzai, 2013). Her life story has been reiterated and written about with great detail in major news outlet around the world, and she herself has written an autobiography titled ‘I am Malala: The Story of the the Girl Who Stood Up For Education and was Shot by the Taliban’. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and was favourited to win, but the prize was awarded instead to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last Friday, the 11th of October .

A video clip of her interview with Jon Stewart has been circulating around the web in which she nearly renders American political television host, Jon Stewart, speechless. Jon Stewart, for those who know him or are well aware of him, should know that he is a man not easily made speechless. It was her answer to Jon Stewart’s question about how she reacted to the news that the Taliban wanted her dead that caused Jon Stewart to be temporarily speechless. Responding in a manner that is reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Ghandi, Malala contemplated the possibility of hitting the gunman with her shoe and instead rationalized that “if you hit a Talib [the hired gunman] with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib” (Jones, 2013).

Echoing her words, Malala feels that “you must not treat others with cruelty” and this sort of pacifism is truly remarkable for a 16-year-old (Dermody, 2013). Similar to how she pushes education rights for women, Malala feels that one must pursue one’s agenda with dialogue and education peacefully. It is these kind of sentiments that highlights the importance of education and how the wisest response to violence is not always violence. Evolution has us believe that we can only respond in two ways: fight or flight. However, time and time again, history seems to prove that theory flawed. Rosa Parks could have fought back when she was ordered to leave her seat in the colored section of a bus, Gandhi could have led a violent revolution against British rule India, and when protesting against the Vietnam War, supporters responded with petals rather than with fists and weapons.

The media tends to overexpose and over-report acts of violence, stories about war, tales of murder and so forth. As a result, we as a collective group tend to get desensitized to violence. Even in Malaysia, it is not uncommon to hear stories about people getting mugged, raped, becoming victims of acid attacks, how ineffective the police is, etc. Similarly, as psychology students, we are relatively well-versed in theories regarding violence, terrorism and aggression. At times, it can feel like that the only response is to respond like-wise or to flee and seek an escape route. And who can really blame us for feeling this way?

Evolution says that we have evolved from animals, specifically primates, and that in certain dangerous situations, both animals and humans-alike respond similarly: they choose to either fight or flee. However, Malala Yousafzai’s story as well as those of the many countless non-violent historical heroes’, is a stark reminder that even though we might be psychologically programmed to respond with violence and action or to find the quickest way to escape the predicament, there lies another path for us to follow: to stand our ground and to respond with the most peaceful way imaginable, using our words and our education.



Wong Hon Jiun
(Year 3 Student in BSc (Hons) Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, UNMC)

Posted in blogevolutionary psychologynewspsychobabblepsychologysocial psychologyunmc