Growing up in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai was denied an education as Taliban forces invaded and stopped girls from going to school. She became an outspoken activist for girl’s education. In response, she was shot by the Taliban in October 2012, when she was 15. She survived, and went on to develop a global platform—and win the Nobel Peace Prize. This year, she completed her education at Oxford University.
But though her circumstances differ from most, Yousafzai–who continues to support access to education through her nonprofit, the Malala Fund–has been struggling during the pandemic: “I took my [college] exams from home and graduated from home. And now I am living at home with my family,” she said at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival. But to keep things in perspective, she thinks of the 20 million girls who are at the risk of losing their education during the pandemic, often due to child marriages, economic necessity, or family pressure, who she is trying to help with her fund.
Another way to occupy her mind during the pandemic? Reading. Partnering with online book club platform Literati, Yousafzai launched her own book club this week—her first pick is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.
Yousafzai says that growing up in Pakistan, she didn’t have any access to books outside her school curriculum, or libraries. “I think I had one of two extra books outside my curriculum. [When I started] I didn’t understand much of what I was reading, but I was proud that I was able to finish them.” she said, adding that reading and learning made her feel empowered. Because women in her community didn’t have much access to books, she valued it even more. When she moved to the UK at age 15 to continue her studies, she was surprised at how many books her peers had read, and the material they had access to. This inspired her to launch her club.
Literati CEO Jessica Ewing says that her company began as a children’s book club, before expanding its offerings for adults. Yousafzai is particularly excited by the opportunity to discuss books with others. “We have the opportunity to come together and have a discussion about it and have a conversation about it—I think that is the most exciting part.”
Yousafzai added that her favorite time to read a book is on a plane trip, when she is disconnected from Wi-Fi and can’t use her phone. During the pandemic, which has had most people grounded, she says she has been enjoying Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
And while she has been doomscrolling like everyone else, Yousafzai sees an upside to the pandemic as it forces organizations to invest more in educational technology, which may eventually expand access to education, something her fund has been on working with local activists and educators in countries like Pakistan and Nigeria. During the pandemic, teachers in Nigeria have been broadcasting lessons on local radio to reach more kids. In Pakistan and Lebanon, lessons have been broadcast on national TV and cell phones.
She has also been inspired by her peers: “I do see dedication among young people. You know, they’re talking about climate change, they’re talking about poverty, they’re talking about inequality. They’re talking about racism, they’re talking about structural racism. And I think that is something that gives me hope that this young generation is not going to accept an unequal and unfair word.”