Malala Yousafzai addressed an enraptured crowd of fortunate Montrealers on Sept. 26 at the annual Influence MTL 2018 conference, stressing the importance of youth activism and gender equality. The Mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante, took to the stage at Place Bonaventure to introduce Yousafzai and underline the importance of young people fighting for their beliefs.
“Why do so many initiatives come from the youth?” Plante asked. “Why do so many initiatives come from you? You can launch small, medium, and large scale initiatives because all victories and all fights are worthy.”*
In a Q&A session led by Danièle Henkel, female entrepreneur and founder of Les Entreprises Danièle Henkel Inc., 21-year-old Yousafzai reiterated the power of youth-driven change. The Pakistani-born Nobel Peace Prize winner sees the 2012 assassination attempt on her life as a clear testimony to the potential for her advocacy work to enact change.
“I started speaking up and realised that some people tried to get rid of my voice,” Yousafzai said during the event. “Just my voice. They were afraid of it because it was so powerful [….] You do not need to be 45, or 60, or 70 to bring change. You do not need to have qualifications. You can bring change at any age, […] make this world a better place, and ensure that everyone […] has education and everyone has health.”
The atmosphere was charged throughout Yousafzai’s panel: The audience reacted to every word she said, cheering at her statements of support for female education and chuckling at her light mockery of her male classmates’ immaturity.
“Before, I was in a girls’ school so I had not really seen boys of my age,” Yousafzai said. “At university, I saw boys and I realized that most of them are boys [….] We expect them to be more mature but they’re not. I have two brothers and they’re the same.”
Nonetheless, Yousafzai pointed out the pivotal role boys and men can play in reducing the gender gap. Yousafzai reminded the audience that gender inequality is not just a problem in her home country of Pakistan, but around the world, including the Western hemisphere.
“Men and boys need to join this fight for equality, it is not just on women,” Yousafzai said. “It’s about their daughters, it’s about their sisters, it’s about their wives [….] When we educate women, when we give them equality, we are not just helping individually, we are helping the whole society.”
To close out the panel, The McGill Tribune asked Yousafzai about her current experience studying at Oxford University and whether she felt that higher education had enabled her to discover new passions and new facets of herself.
“I’m learning not just the content from the books, not just philosophy, politics, and economics, but also learning from my friends, learning from the professors,” Yousafzai said. “Everyone is doing amazing work, one of my friends has done coding and one of my other friends is raising awareness about feminism [….] You get to find your passion.”
The audience was left feeling invigorated by Yousafzai’s messages of optimism and calls for gender inclusivity. Jason Carmichael, associate professor in McGill’s Department of Sociology, attended the event with a group of other professors who lauded Yousafzai’s compelling performance.
“Her courage is infectious,” Carmichael said. “I think that one of the things that she really brings to the table is her courage of conviction and courage of life. I think there are many people that care about a lot of things; there are very few people who are willing to put their lives on the line for what they believe in.”
*Plante’s quote has been translated from its original French by the author.