“I did not know that this is what the terrorists would be most afraid of, me using my voice,” said the world’s youngest Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai, as she addressed a packed audience at the University of Washington last month.
Yousafzai was only 15 in October 2012 when members of the Taliban boarded her school bus in northwest Pakistan and shot her in the head. The assassination attempt was in response to her longtime outspoken advocacy for girl’s education.
“No one expected them to target a child,” she told the crowd.
Her experience propelled her not only to international prominence, but past a point of no return.
“They could not keep me quiet,” she said. “Now it’s been proved that nothing can stop me, not even a bullet.”
Dressed in a vibrant turquoise ensemble, the now 19-year-old had the audience in Seattle rapt. She was poised and spoke with wisdom, but also with humor.
She reminded me of many of the girls I work with as the program manager of Young Women Empowered. Yousafzai is evidence that a young woman with voice can be infinitely powerful.
Yousafzai spoke of fear. She spoke of her father and how his courage in supporting girls’ education inspired her not only to attend school, but to stand up for the rights of other girls to go. She wrote a blog about life under the Taliban for the BBC and was featured in a New York Times documentary.
She understood that her prominent support would be risking her safety and the safety of her family, but her conviction was greater than her fear.
But after she was attacked, Yousafzai lost her fear completely because the worst thing that could possibly happen did.
So I asked the young women I work with what their biggest fears were. I also asked what they would do if they had no fear. Their answers were enlightening.
Garo Guyo is a 15-year-old from Decatur High School in Federal Way.
“Dreams cost money and I’m broke. And I don’t push myself to try new things sometimes so that is a pretty big barrier,” she said. “If I wasn’t afraid, I would publicly speak, like be a motivational speaker.”
Beyond financial barriers, Guyo’s greater fear as a young black woman and a Muslim is for her physical safety. “I’m afraid of someone killing me because of race and my religion.”
Eyerusalem Mesele, 18, a recent graduate of Foster High School in Tukwila said, “If I wasn’t afraid of anything, I’d do everything.”
When pressed, she wouldn’t limit herself.
“The craziest, most elaborate ideas that come to my mind. That little rough sketch of how I can single-handedly fix the education system written on the back of this used Starbucks napkin, I’d do it all because nothing could stop me — not my socioeconomic status, not my demographic, no one. It’s just my goals, my hunger, my passion and me,” she said.
Mesele had spent two weeks in Mexico with me in a study abroad program that I started called Many Voices One Tribe. There, I witnessed firsthand as Mesele conquered her inhibitions to salsa dance, swim in the ocean, cliff dive and interview strangers.
It surprised me to even hear Mesele admit to any limitations.
“I’m most afraid of not being able to do everything I want to do. I’m afraid of ‘no,’ not necessarily the word, because I feel like ‘no’ comes in many different forms, which is something I see and will continue to see, especially because I’m a black woman.”
Mesele recounts her fear of rejection, of being laughed at, of losing passion or becoming burned out, but worse than all these, her fear of losing faith in herself and believing in the people who tell her she’s not capable of achieving her dreams.
Katia Kreimer, also age 18, is a recent graduate from Ingraham High School in Seattle.
“I think that I’m most afraid of the unknown,” she said. “Not the unknown, like ghosts and spirits but, I’m scared of the unknown of my future and my life. I’m afraid I won’t be heard and listened to after I’m gone. It’s like I’m afraid I won’t make an impact.”
But her relationship to fear is not adversarial.
“If I wasn’t afraid of anything. I don’t think doing anything would be a lot of fun. When we do new things it’s scary,” Kreimer says. “The fear is not knowing the outcome of what you are going to do. If I was fearless. I feel that I wouldn’t truly be living.”
Zoya Gheisar, 16, attends Forest Ridge High School in Bellevue, said she is afraid of being “a failed investment.”
“What I’m scared of? Failing to grasp everything I’ve been so lucky to be given. My mother’s immigration to this country, the scholarship to my incredible school, all the loving people in my life who would do anything to support me, and the list goes on and on,” she said.
“I worry I’m not worthy of it all. I worry that I won’t use it as well as somebody else could,” she said. “I would actually think about pursuing a creative career, maybe in writing. It’s never even been an option in my mind before, because I knew it was too high risk to fail.”
Since the shooting, Yousafzai has dedicated herself to creating an army of women worldwide speaking out. Her message to young women is: “Believe in the work you want to do.”
The work she continues to invest in is making sure young women have access to education. She has been around the world and even inspired prime ministers and presidents to enact policies in support of young women.
But even young women who have access to education need all the support they can get to achieve their goals. If you want to get involved you can donate to the Malala Fund. There are also organizations right here in Seattle doing important work and they could use donations as well as volunteers and mentors. Here are just a few.
Young Women Empowered: http://youngwomenempowered.org
Powerful Voices: http://www.powerfulvoices.org
You Grow Girl: http://www.yougrowgirl.org
Girl’s First: http://www.ywcaworks.org/page.aspx?pid=399
Reel Grrls: http://reelgrrls.org
Skate Like a Girl: http://www.skatelikeagirl.com
Rain City Rock Camp https://raincityrockcamp.org