The 17-year old girl who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize
On Oct.10, the Nobel Committee announced two winners of the annual Nobel Peace Prize: Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi. At just 17 years old, Yousafzai, a 2013 Glamour Woman of the Year, is the youngest ever winner of the distinguished prize. Satyarthi is a children’s rights activist in India who has been working for decades against the financial exploitation of children. “Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzai has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations,” said Thorbjorn Jagland, the Nobel Committee’s chairman.
Glamour recently traveled with Malala to Nigeria and witnessed her power as a force of peace in person as she negotiated with the President of Nigeria, eventually getting him to agree to finally meet with the families of the girls kidnapped by extremist group Boko Haram.
Malala has had an incredible year, from continuing her work with the Malala Fund, to the publication of her book, to the news that the Taliban members behind her 2012 attack have finally been arrested.
The Nobel Committee noted in its statement that “the struggle against suppression and for the rights of children and adolescents contributes to the realization of the ‘fraternity between nations’ that Alfred Nobel mentions in his will as one of the criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
For most of us, her story began on October 9, 2012; the day a young man with a handkerchief over his face boarded a bus filled with 20 singing, chatting girls on their way home from school in the lush Swat Valley of northern Pakistan.
“Who is Malala?” the man asked.
When the girls unwittingly glanced toward their 15-year-old friend near the back, he lifted a black Colt .45 and fired three shots, sending a bullet through her head.
But who is Malala?
Her real story, she says, started years before.
When Malala Yousafzai; named, fittingly, after Malalai, a female Afghan martyr who died in battle, was born, her father, a teacher named Ziauddin, refused to grieve the way fathers in his culture were expected to upon having daughters. Instead he wrote her into his clan’s family tree, a distinction usually reserved for boys.
And Malala’s sense of justice came young. When, at an early age, she saw children living on a garbage dump, she wrote a letter to God. “Give me strength and courage,” she pleaded. “I want to make this world perfect.”
Malala’s valley had always been conservative; she remembers disliking having to cover her face, and bristling at the fact that while boys and men could walk freely around town, her mother could not go out without a male relative, “even if it was a five-year-old boy!”
But real danger only came to her peaceful region when she was 10; in the form of the Taliban. Then, says Malala,”I got afraid. Not of the Taliban, but because they were banning girls’ education.”
Schools closed; many were bombed and bodies of dissenters piled up in a town square. The local Taliban leader used his radio show to congratulate by name those girls who dropped out of school.
The school Malala’s father ran stayed open, but for safety, it removed its signs and the girls stopped wearing their uniforms, which would have made them targets.
And that’s when Malala really became Malala. When a BBC journalist asked her father to recommend a teacher or student willing to document the terror, no one volunteered—except his own daughter.
“I thought, what a great opportunity,” she recalls. “Terrorism will spill over if you don’t speak up.”
Under the pen name Gul Makai, she wrote frank, detailed diary entries about her life under the Taliban. Though many urged her to stop, and some have since criticised her father for allowing her to do it, Malala was not worried. The Taliban, she remembers, “had never come for a girl.”
Emboldened, she began giving speeches across Pakistan in favour of education. She won the country’s National Peace Prize and met the prime minister, presenting him with a list of demands on behalf of children—rebuilt schools, a girls’ college—but keeping her expectations low.
“I told myself, ‘I shall not wait for any prime minister—when I’m a politician, I will do these things myself,’” she says.
Malala led a double life: In one world, she was an Ugly Betty fan known for her spot-on impersonations of teachers and friends; in the other, a rising voice of dissent against terror. She started to realise her work could be risky.
“I used to think that one day the Taliban would come [for me],” she told me. “And I thought, what would I do? I said to myself, ‘Malala, you must be brave. You must not be afraid of anyone. You are only trying to get an education—you are not committing a crime.’ I would even tell [my attacker], ‘I want education for your son and daughter.’” Her own mother decided to take classes to learn to read and write.
And then came October 9.
Her parents rushed to her bedside. “My brave daughter, my beautiful daughter,” lamented her father, leaning over her.
His brave daughter recovered, thanks in part to two visiting British doctors who were able to take her to a hospital in Birmingham, England. Around the world, women, men, and children prayed for her. Thousands of letters piled up (one addressed simply to “The Girl Shot in the Head, Birmingham”), and people everywhere asked: Would she be okay? Could she lead a normal life again?
It turns out that for Malala, normal was never the goal. In the years since her attack, she has spoken, written, and fought her way into history, becoming the world’s leading advocate for educating girls. Not normal—extraordinary.
At the United Nations in July 2013, she brought the General Assembly to its feet.
“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world,” she said.
Since then she has Skyped with Syrian children, written the memoir `I Am Malala’, charmed Jon Stewart and Barack Obama, and become one of the youngest-ever nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize. Throughout it all, she has stayed focused: Let girls go to school.
The issue certainly needs a hero right now. Around the world an estimated 66 million girls are being denied the right to an education. Fix that, scholars have long said, and you could change the course of human history.
“There’s a saying,” says Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky, “that when you educate boys, you educate boys; when you educate girls, you educate a village.”
Educated girls are safer from sexual assault and childhood marriage; they go on to raise more-educated children themselves. Her Muslim faith, Malala points out, is in her favour: “Islam tells us every girl and boy should be educated,” she says, “I don’t know why the Taliban have forgotten it.”
For that sensibility, and for her unstoppable drive to change the world, Malala was Glamour’s 2013 Women of the Year Fund honoree. The money raised goes to the project she is most passionate about, The Malala Fund, which aims to help children all over the world get the education that is their birth-right. The Fund recently made its first grant, supporting the educations of 40 girls in the Swat Valley—an achievement that thrills Malala, who wants to expand to other regions and countries (she cites Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria). “Nothing can happen when half the population is in the Stone Age,” she says. “I believe that when women are educated, then you will see this world change.”
Malala’s own world has changed hugely, from a small town to the global stage. She plans to go to college—Oxford, Cambridge, maybe Harvard, “to learn and learn and learn”—and into politics; one of her heroes is the assassinated Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose scarf she wore during that address at the United Nations.