The Nobel Peace Prize was given to the youngest person ever: Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl that was shot in the face and neck by the Taliban after voicing her passion for educational rights for girls. She was originally in critical condition but survived and thrived. At 17, she is now the voice of change and perseverance for other young girls and women oppressed by Taliban regimes. She is my heroine.
Though Malala Yousafzai is 17, she does not use Facebook or even a mobile phone lest she lose focus on her studies. She spent her summer vacation flying to Nigeria to campaign for the release of girls kidnapped by the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram, but also worrying about her grades, which recently took a worrisome dip. She confronted President Obama about American drone policy in a meeting last year, but finds it difficult to befriend her fellow students in Birmingham, England.
“I want to have fun, but I don’t quite know how,” she wrote in the edition of her autobiography for young readers.
On Friday, Ms. Yousafzai became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — grouped in the same pantheon as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa, and yet still a student at Edgbaston High School for Girls, where she was summoned out of her chemistry class to hear the news.
Ms. Yousafzai began campaigning for girls’ education at the age of 11, three years before she was shot by the Taliban. She was so young that some observers questioned how well equipped a child of that age could be to put her own safety on the line and commit to a life of activism. The prize she received on Friday validates what she has taken on, but also underscores the disproportionate expectations that trail her: Can she truly influence the culture of her home country of Pakistan, which she cannot even visit because of threats to her safety, and where many revile her as a tool of the West? Ms. Yousafzai may be an Anne Frank-like figure who defied terror, showed extraordinary courage and inspires hope, but how much can one teenager accomplish?
“Can she actually create systemic change at this young age? Can she create a movement? Because she doesn’t have that kind of infrastructure in Pakistan at the moment,” said Vishakha Desai, a professor of international relations at Columbia, said in a telephone interview.
In one half of Ms. Yousafzai’s dual life, she is the center of an international advocacy operation for girls’ education that now involves a nonprofit organization, two best-selling books, and activities that stretch from Pakistan to Jordan to Kenya. She criticizes not just the Taliban, but also the culture of Pakistan, in which women are rarely granted the same rights and opportunities as men. She has become one of the world’s most prominent faces of moderate Islam, saying in a recent interview that she tried wearing a burqa when she was younger but gave it up: “I realized that it just took away my freedom, and that’s why I stopped wearing it.”
When she met with Mr. Obama last year, she critiqued American military action in her home region. “Instead of soldiers, send books. Instead of sending weapons, send pens,” as she later put it. (Asked how he responded, she gave a knowing look. “He’s a politician,” she said.)
In the other, lesser-known half of Ms. Yousafzai’s life, she lives in a neat brick house near the hospital in Birmingham where she convalesced after being shot by the Taliban in 2012. She has largely recovered, but in her memoir and a recent interview, she spoke of longing for home and straining to fit in to her new environs. She spends hours on Skype each week with a childhood friend in Pakistan, catching up on girls’ education efforts in the Swat Valley but also hometown gossip.
When she first moved to England, she found the clothing on other women so skimpy that she wondered if there was a national fabric shortage. She wears a standard British uniform to school each day — green sweater, striped shirt, tights — but adds a longer skirt and a headscarf for modesty. She still goes to therapy sessions to regain the use of her facial muscles, she wrote in her book, and tries not to dwell on the operations she may need in the future. She has grown to love cupcakes, but does not hide the fact that she and her family find England cold and isolating.
“We are just a few feet away from the next house, but for all we know of our neighbor it might as well be a mile,” she wrote of her new life.
“It’s odd to be so well known but to be lonely at the same time,” she added.
And yet in an interview last August, Ms. Yousafzai exuded an almost ascetic sense of higher purpose, saying that she rarely watches television and deleted the Candy Crush game from her iPad to forestall a growing addiction. She allows herself to take selfies, she said, but only if they are employed for higher purposes: “We have to use it to highlight the issues that children all over the world are facing, so to highlight the issues girls are facing in Afghanistan or Pakistan or India,” she said. As a child in Pakistan, she had access to only a handful of books, she said, but one was a biography of Dr. King, giving her an early sense of what one activist could accomplish.
Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize after a lifetime of medical and humanitarian work, and Aung Sang Suu Kyi won it after decades of human rights protest in Myanmar, but Ms. Yousafzai is so young that her future path still seems unclear. She often says that she wants to become a leader in Pakistan like another of her heroes, Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of Pakistan, assassinated in 2007. That aspiration gives chills to Ms. Yousafzai’s admirers, who worry about her continued safety.
Ever the education crusader, Ms. Yousafzai says she is focused on attending university. She would like to study at Oxford, followed perhaps by graduate school in the United States.
In a brief speech in Birmingham on Friday, she called the prize “an encouragement for me to go forward and believe in myself.”
She added one stipulation, though: “It’s not going to help me in my tests and exams.”