Malala was just 17—the youngest recipient ever—when she received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, with Kailash Satyarthi, for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.
When I was 15, my biggest concerns were how i would get through another day of chemistry, learning all the words to Total Eclipse of the Heart, and if I’d ever have a date.
When Malala Yousafzai was 15, she was recovering from a bullet that went through her head and neck after an assassination attempt by members of the Taliban.
The reason? She wanted girls to be educated.
Born in Pakistan into a Sunni Muslim family, Malala was greatly influenced by her father, Ziauddin, a poet, school owner, and educational activist. He recognized early on that his daughter was special and took the time to encourage her thoughts and learning. It was a difficult time, as the Taliban began to move across all areas of Muslim life.
By the time she was 10, Malala had declared her desire to be a doctor. With the support of her father, she also became a public speaker—in a 2008 speech before a local press club that was covered by regional media, she declared that the Taliban had no right to keep her from an education. She would go on to be a peer educator, encouraging other young people to get engaged in social discourse and journalism.
in January 2009 the Taliban set a new edict that girls would not be allowed in school; the ruling was accompanied by the bombing of more than a hundred girls schools. The harsh mandate did not go unnoticed, and the BBC came looking for someone be to cover the group’s increasing influence from a girl’s perspective. The dangers were real and after original bloggers bowed out, Ziauddin recommended his daughter for the job.
In her first post (published January 3, 2009), Malala wrote about a scary dream she’d had, with military helicopters and fighting, and noted that it wasn’t a new one. She was relieved when the girl’s schools were reopened in March. The fighting was far from over, though, and when their hometown was evacuated the family became separated. That May, Ziauddin was the subject of a Taliban death threat for criticizing the military.
It was around this time that she and her father were approached to be part of a documentary. In it, Malala talked about how her career plans had changed.
“I have a new dream… I must be a politician to save this country. There are so many crises in our country. I want to remove these crises.”
The documentary led to new visibility and even celebrity. Malala began to publicly advocate for women’s education on global platforms. She was still only 12.
In 2011, as her profile file continued to grow, she was awarded two peace prizes for youth. By 2012, she was organizing an education foundation. She also became, at 15, the target of a Taliban assassination attempt. Malala was on a school bus headed home when a gunman shot her; the bullet went through her head and neck.
She was moved to hospitals in Germany and England, where she was treated at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, which specialized in treating military personnel. She was in a coma for several days before speaking on October 17; miraculously her prognosis was for a strong recovery.
The shooting had prompted worldwide outrage that included protests in Pakistan and a petition, signed by more than 3 million, that led to Pakistan’s first Right to Education bill.
Her work was not yet done. She met with world leaders and activists and in July of 2013 spent her birthday addressing the United Nations to call for worldwide access to education. The occasion was named Malala Day; the teen used it to further her message:
“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born … I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists.”
In 2017 Malala would receive yet another honor as co-recipient (the youngest ever) of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Indian child’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. The following year she opened s school on Lebanon for Syrian refugees.
She had already written her autobiography by then, an accomplishment that is particularly resonant with this writer. It’s almost impossible to truly take on how much life she has lived in her now 20 years.
There are a dozen things that make Malala an Inspirer. What strikes me most is her unending commitment—despite threats, despite an actual attempt on her life—to speaking truth to power. Her dedication literally put her in the line of fire and yet nothing could stop her from spreading her message.
I have to think that some people are just born with a different kind of core, a brain and the kind of integrity that supersedes fear and allows one to push past challenges no matter how difficult. To accept danger and seek truths and fairness anyway.
But while we may not all have the physical and emotional courage of Malala Yousafzai, it is undeniable that in every life there are opportunities to act in ways that reach beyond ourselves. We may not influence world-thinking or make it to the stage of the UN, but we can look at our own beliefs and find what matters to us, then fight for it. As we approach another new year, it is time to put up, stretch those integrity muscles and follow the example of the girl who refused to listen to those who would tell her no.
For some of us it means figuring out what matters most and where we want to spend our energy. Which talents can we bring to the table, what gifts can be put to use? How do we overcome the doubts that try to tell us we can’t really have an impact?
We can start small—hell, we can stay small, as long as we are in the mix, doing something. We can find those who push us to be better and to live up to our fullest potentials. And with the example she’s set, can all look for the Malala inside ourselves.
The world would be a much better place.