About A Name: Malala (and Malalai)

October 16, 2012 § 4 Comments

EDIT (2016): Name Station reader Nabi has given an education on the name which must be shared. In the comments below she says, “This name is Malalai not Malala. It is a Pakhto (Pashto) name originally from Afghanistan. The Actual name is (Ma Lalai) means (My Darling). The word (malal) is actually a Farsi word meaning grieved and that is not a name but people shortened the name Malalai to “malal” which has changed the whole meaning.”

Thank you, Nabi. So, Malala’s name is Farsi meaning grief-stricken, while Malalai (sometimes Malala) is Pashto, and means “as sweet as honey.” The rest of the orginal post must be read with this addendum in mind.


In the past week, no name has trended more than Malala – as in 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, a young Pakistani activist for women’s rights in her native country. Specifically, Yousufzai is a vocal advocate for the rights of Muslim women in Pakistan to receive an education without fear of persecution from the Taliban. Her name began trending worldwide last week, after she was shot in the head by Taliban insurgents on her way to school in Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley, and it continues to trend while she fights for her life at a hospital in Birmingham, England.

Young Malala, who at twelve was penning a blog for the BBC and dreams of becoming a doctor, at a young age chose to fight, with words, the very people the world has come to know as terrorists against Judeo-Christianity and femininity. Pakistan awarded her the National Peace Prize last year, when she was just 13. But Malala never seemed like a reluctant hero though she knew the dangers sincerely. At fourteen, I was concerned with boys and boy bands, counting down the years until I could finally leave school behind! I could never, ever hope to have the courage and strength of Malala, for I have never known true struggle – I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth compared to the millions of young women born into societies where people choose not to recognize their human rights so violently.

Malala’s attempted assassination has seemingly awakened a renewed sense of anger towards the Taliban within her native country, but Malala’s story, her impact, and her influence are not yet complete. Today, we dive into a name with little to no popularity beyond the Pakistani-Afghan region west of India, but what a lovely name it is, with such strong and powerful connotations.

Young Malala inherited a name to describe her perfectly – the name Malala is born from this region of the world, and describes a woman so friendly she’s “as sweet as honey.” (Though Malala herself stated that her name means “grief stricken” in one of her BBC blogs.) But more than that, the Pashto name Malala (or Malalai) is a symbol of courage and bravery to the Pashtun people (the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan). In 1880 during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, a woman named Malala of Maiwand despaired over the loss of her father and fiance on the battlefield, on what some sources claim was to be her wedding day. The Pashtun people were losing morale in their fight against British imperialism but Malala, who has been called the Afghan Joan of Arc, held up the Afghan flag to rally her people.

“If you do not fall in the Battle of Maiwand, by Allah, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame,” she said. As a result, men young and old in the region took to the battlefields to push on in the fight against the Brits. Malala joined the charge to battle with renowned Afghan general Ayub Khan but was shot down by the Brits, approximately 18 years old at the time of her death. Instantly martyred, Malala’s countrymen went on to win the Battle of Maiwand, eventually maintaining control of their homeland as British India retreated – although they ceded their foreign affairs to British rule in the Treaty of Gandamak that ended the war. She continues to inspire generations of Afghan people, with many schools and hospitals named in her honour. (Just yesterday, Pakistani officials announced that Yousufzai’s school in the Swat Valley, run by her father, would be renamed in her honour, so it’s certainly something these admired and respected young women have in common.)

And Afghanistan is home to another young woman named Malalai who isn’t afraid to speak out – Afghan activist and former politician Malalai Joya. She was an elected member of the Afghan National Assembly from 2005-07, when she was forced to step down after denouncing the presence of reported war criminals in the Afghan parliament. She remains a vocal critic of President Hamid Karzai’s administration, as well as the administration’s Western supporters – especially the United States. In 2010, Time magazine named her among the 100 most influential people in the world, while the BBC has called her “the bravest woman in Afghanistan.”

Indeed, CNN today has quoted one social activist in Pakistan who reiterates the strength behind Malala and her name. “If Taliban is a mindset, then Malala is a mindset, too. It’s a mindset of educated and empowered women.”

Certain universally acknowledged differences between Western and Islamic customs, beliefs, and culture mean this name is unlikely to trend as a baby name for girls in the English-speaking world, though we may see more of it from people of the Islamic faith now residing in our home countries. And I think it’s valuable to know where the name comes from and what it means to people beyond our realm of understanding. Take these three brave Muslim women as proof that Islam is about more than it’s extremists, which is true for every religion, and proof that women of the West are not alone in their belief in themselves – and our battles, don’t forget, are usually not nearly as perilous.


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§ 4 Responses to About A Name: Malala (and Malalai)

  • Wow, what a beautiful, brave and inspiring name – thank you so much for covering it.

    I’m sure it’s much more usable by Arabic and Muslim women, and would be readily accepted by those living in the West and is much more meaningful to them.

    But I can see it being used outside that group too, because it isn’t hugely different from names such as Malia, and can see Lala as a nickname for it, which isn’t so different from popular Lola. The meaning is gorgeous.

    • Nabi says:

      This name is Malalai not Malala. It is a Pakhto ( Pashto) name originally from Afghanistan.
      The Actual name is ( Ma Lalai) means ( My Darling). The word (malal) is actually a Farsi word meaning grieved and that is not a name but people shortened the name Malalai to “malal” which has changed the whole meaning.

  • Snowspell says:

    This is a great explaination of this name. I love the sound of it. It reminds me of Hawaiian names. Good nicknames would be: Mali, Mala, Lala, Lali, Lai, Laia.

    I think that this name will trend in the west where strong, independant women are admired and courage would be a welcome train to imbue in a new daughter.

  • Malala is absolutely exquisite and her namesake is as well, I could see plenty of parents using this.

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