History is not always made by warriors and chiefs. It’s also shaped by peacemakers, inventors, explorers and saints. Sometimes history is redirected by one person asking a simple and innocent question.
This is what two extraordinary young girls have done in our time. Last week, one of them spoke to a special gathering of young people at the United Nations.
Malala Yousatzai is a Pashtun Sunni Muslim who grew up in the Swat Valley, in the volatile Taliban-controlled northwest of Pakistan. In 2009, when she was 12, the Taliban decreed that girls could not go to school, destroying more than 100 schools for girls in her region.
Malala kept going to school, even while most stayed home. The Taliban then insisted that all schoolgirls must wear the stifling burqa, which is little more than a full-length blanket with eyeholes.
Malala refused to wear the burqa, saying she couldn’t walk in one without falling.
She began to speak out on behalf of girls throughout Pakistan, asking this simple question: “Why shouldn’t everyone be able to go to school?”
In 2011, South African activist Desmond Tutu nominated Malala for the International Children’s Peace Prize, for calling upon world leaders to ensure that every child would have an education, and urging young people to stand up against extremism.
Last October, while returning from school, she was shot by the Taliban, with one bullet piercing her brain and lodging in her shoulder.
“We did not attack her for raising her voice for education,” said the Taliban, after widespread criticism from Muslim clerics and others, but because she “is a symbol of the infidels and obscenity.”
Malala miraculously recovered from her wounds and now speaks for a worldwide movement, sponsored by the U.N., calling for universal childhood education.
Last week, she spoke at a special gathering of young people in New York, citing the heroes who have inspired her, including the Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa.
“I raise my voice, not so that I can shout, but so that I can be heard,” she said. “We want schools and education for every child’s bright future. (The Taliban) thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. The power of the voice of women frightens them.”
As one classmate of Malala’s described what has happened since October, she said, “Every girl of Swat is Malala. We will educate ourselves. We will win. They cannot defeat us.”
I was deeply touched and saddened by reading Malala’s story of life in Pakistan, and her speech. She transported me to another place and time, and to the memory of another young girl much like her, who also asked an innocent but powerful question, “Why can’t we have peace?”
Samantha Smith of Manchester, Maine, was 10 years old in 1982, when she wrote a letter to the leader of what was then the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov.
“I would like to know why you want to conquer the world, or at least our country” she said, adding, “God made the world for us to live together in peace and not fight.”
Andropov answered, assuring her that Soviet children, like American children, wanted peace, and inviting her to come the Soviet Union to visit the young people of that country.
Samantha spent two weeks there in the summer of 1983, garnering worldwide affection with her endearing personality and optimism. While raising new questions about the arms race and the Cold War, she became an international symbol of the power of a simple, earnest question.
After her tragic death in a plane crash in Auburn in 1985, she was praised by both Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, as well as by thousands of others around the globe who were moved by her example.
I only wish that she, like Malala, had lived to become 16, and to continue to spread her positive energy everywhere. What wonderful things she would surely have done.
These stories remind us of the power of a single voice in confronting the real enemies of freedom: ignorance, intolerance, hatred and violence.
Many of us spend a lot of time, in our lives, focusing on the things we want but don’t have, on the failings of others or the absence of inspiring leaders. But when our eyes and hearts are open, we find heroes, saints and angels everywhere around us. They are constantly urging us forward, inspiring us by example, and lighting the way for others to follow.
Alan Caron is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization that promotes Maine’s next economy, and a partner at the Caron & Egan Consulting Group. He can be contacted at: