From Anne Frank to Malala: The Voice of Teenagers in the World
Malala’s Nobel win and the fact that since January 1st of this year Anne Frank’s diary is in the public domain, call for an inevitable parallel between the two. There is no denying the profound cultural and historical impact Diary of a Young Girl has had in post-WWII Europe, Americas, and worldwide. The scars the world still carries from its darkest hour are mirrored back us in the form of teenage dreams gone up in smokes. And while Anne Frank is still read in school all across Europe and America, another region of the world is going through extremely dark times. When the Taliban regime rose to power in Pakistan, the people accepted them as an improvement, but soon this would change. In 2009 the Taliban, among other destructive acts, outlawed education for women and young girls, constraining them inside their homes, and proceeded to destroy elementary schools across the country. It was at this time that, through an anonymous blog set up by the BBC, the world first read the words of Malala Yousafzai. Later on, she abandoned anonymity and embraced her role as a social activist fighting for girls’ everywhere right to education. Anne and Malala differ in many ways, but they are alike in their most striking qualities: they have become symbols of justice and equality and most importantly of all, they represent the belief that deep down people are righteous. In times of deep darkness, these two figures, these two teenage girls have risen, through their writing, as metaphorical moral compasses for thousands of people.
It is interesting to notice the similarities between Anne and Malala, as well as their differences, in order to understand not only the importance of their writings, but also the reasons why they have achieved such a recognition. While Anne Frank needs no introduction after the success of her diary, Malala can use some highlighting. Being a central activist figure in the struggle for girls’ education, Malala Yousafzai has been the recipient of many awards and prizes. Most notably, of course, was her nomination and win of the Nobel Peace Prize, but in January 2014 she was also awarded the Anne Frank Award for Moral Courage. Gillian Walnes, the executive director of the Anne Frank Trust, said:
“Malala was referred to in the media as the ‘Anne Frank of Pakistan’ because of the courage and determination she displayed in her fight for education for girls in her native country.”
Although Anne Frank wrote in diary form, she intended it to be published and in fact worked rigorously as a writer, providing fictional names for her characters and providing rewrites and notes on her journal entries. Malala’s is closer to a biography, but the tone is quite similar to Anne’s. They both wrote their respective works when they were in their early teens, although Diary of a Young Girl was published posthumously several years later. Both girls were the subject of extreme oppression, and suffered personally from it; Anne Frank was sent to Auschwitz and, even though she survived it, she did not survive the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, and Malala was shot in the face by a member of the Taliban, miraculously surviving. It is clear that talking about either of them, one has to keep in mind the terrible and extraordinary circumstances in which they lived and worked. This is a fundamental reason why their books are so moving to such a wide variety of readers; their accounts of war and poverty and living in a state of constant fear, and their courage through it all is not only inspiring, it is often unimaginable. Their shocking situation and their age, strongly tied to innocence, ultimately awaken the righteous and good-willed side of readers.
Although Malala’s book, I Am Malala, is the main text where her experiences are documented and her views and struggles are brought to mainstream light, especially after her Nobel win, what is really worth looking into is her BBC blog, on which she worked when she was younger. Her depictions of war there are much closer to second part of Anne Frank’s diary in terms of consciousness and tone. There is also a similarity in the way these two pieces of writing came to be, which shows the true spirit and determination of the two girls. Malala’s father, who is a school owner in Pakistan, was contacted by the BBC in late 2008 to suggest a student who would be willing to write in this blog so they could have a first-hand account of the experiences of students. A few students volunteered, but soon pulled out of the project, after their parents expressed concern about their lives should their identity be revealed to the Taliban. This is when Malala decided, with the support of her father, to step in. This display of courage for her cause is truly unique and it mirrors Anne’s determination. While it is true that her diary, particularly in the first half, was mainly concerned with her personal life, her lack of friends (hence the introduction of Kitty) and a close inspection of herself as a growing teenager, themes that resonate with everyone who read the book as part of their high school reading list, she continues the rest of her diary with an acute awareness of the larger world around her, and her experiences of the war. As Jacqueline Bel points out, “In the course of time her self-reflection becomes more serious. Even while still in hiding Anne knows that she wants to become a journalist or writer. In 1943, after an appeal on the radio to all Dutch people to record their war experiences, she starts rewriting her diary with a view to publishing it after the war” (Bel 132). This incentive was similar to Malala’s, and of course her father’s work in publishing and distributing her work is crucial to the way we perceive her today.
Diary of a Young Girl and I Am Malala, as well as Malala’s BBC blog, are living testaments to their unadulterated visions of peace and human potential. Malala has proved her courage in many ways, but the way she talks about it is as remarkable as her book. About her assassination attempt, she writes
“I didn’t see the two young men step out into the road and bring the van to a sudden halt. I didn’t get a chance to answer their question, ‘Who is Malala?’ or I would have explained to them why they should let us girls go to school as well as their own sisters and daughters. The last thing I remember is that I was thinking about the revision I needed to do for the next day.”
This extreme dedication to her cause, where she is thinking of education, her own as well as the right to education in general, even at a time when she is in mortal danger, is echoed again in her interview with Jon Stewart. When he asks her about receiving threats against her life prior to the assassination attempt, she recalls her thoughts in case someone were to break through her window wanting to kill her,
“Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right. […] I will tell [the man who wants to kill me] how important education is and ‘You will want education for your children as well. That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want’”
This response received and astonished reaction from the audience, which was left speechless. It is not much different from the reactions of most readers while reading Diary of a Young Girl, particularly the paragraphs where Anne expresses her thoughts on the war and her not understanding the reasons why human beings behave this way. Towards the end of her diary, she writes
“What’s the point of the war? Why, oh, why can’t people live together peacefully? Why all this destruction? The question is understandable, but up to now no one has come up with a satisfactory answer. Why is England manufacturing bigger and better airplanes and bombs and at the same time churning out new houses for reconstruction?[…] Why do people have to starve when mountains of food are rotting away in other parts of the world? Oh, why are people so crazy?”
As it has been heavily mentioned earlier, what is truly remarkable about these two girls and their works is their pure nature and unique view of the world. This is the result of several factors. Though many of them are found in virtually most children and teenagers, some of these factors are incredibly rare even amongst adults. Anne and Malala share a passion for writing, for education, and dare to dream big. Anne, on her part, has shown tremendous resilience in working on her diary with the determination and passion of a veteran writer. Not every writer can claim the same about themselves at such a young age. Malala has risen her voice for her cause above all others, like no adult has done. She continues to be in the forefront of this movement that seems destined to succeed over oppressing forces.
The level of historical and cultural resonance that Anne Frank’s diary has achieved is destined to be matched by that of Malala and her work, and it is only logical. Anne has been proven right, when she writes
simply by the fact that her words have reached and touched so many people across continents and decades. Unfortunately, it is left only to the imagination to see what could have happened if she survived the war. The same happened when Malala took the podium at the Nobel Prize awards ceremony to talk about what she has experienced and the hopes she has for the future of her country, and ultimately for young girls everywhere: the whole world stopped and listened to a teenager who was telling everyone what is in our hearts as humans. The most momentous element of both their works is the perspective. The reason why Anne Frank’s diary has survived and is to this day perhaps the most famous WWII work, and why Malala has gone on to inspire so many people in fighting for her cause is because, when destruction is all around, seeing it from the eyes of a child, who is pure and innocent, awakens the innocent child in every person. Just like the image of the Holocaust is not complete without the account of Anne Frank, the civil rights movement for equality and education in Pakistan, India, and the Middle East is not complete without talking about the effect that Malala has had and continues to have. As she said in her acceptance speech,