Malala Fund co-founder Shiza Shahid on There are no Superheroes, Just Us: My Journey with Malala at TEDxMidAtlantic – Transcript
Shiza Shahid – Malala Fund co-founder
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.