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Malala Yousafzai: from child campaigner to Nobel Peace Prize winner

Nine years after being shot by the Taliban, the 24-year-old is calling on world leaders to help Afghans

Malala Yousafzai has called on global leaders to help evacuate women’s rights activists from Afghanistan while she recovers from her latest bout of surgery almost a decade after being shot by the Taliban in Pakistan. 

In a blog on Podium, the 24-year-old wrote that it was the sixth time she had undergone surgery to “repair the Taliban’s damage to my body” and said she had been lying in a hospital bed in Boston as the Taliban marched across Afghanistan towards Kabul two weeks ago.

“With ice packs and a bandage wrapped around my head, I watched as province after province fell to men with guns, loaded with bullets like the one that shot me,” she continued. “As soon as I could sit up again, I was making phone calls, writing letters to heads of state.”

Since the fateful shooting in 2012, Yousafzai has become the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, graduated from Oxford University, and written several books.

Growing up

Born in 1997 in northwestern Pakistan into a Sunni Muslim family, Malala Yousafzai showed early signs of a campaigning instinct. At the age of 11 she began writing for BBC Urdu, detailing the Taliban’s growing influence in her home district of Swat.

Under the pseudonym “Gul Makai” (“cornflower” in Urdu), Yousafzai’s blog exposed the spread of violence and political unrest in the area, and her fears that the Taliban would deprive her and other girls of an education. In 2009, the Taliban decreed that no girl could attend school and all girls’ schools were closed. 

Following a peace deal, girls were allowed to return to school. Yousafzai and her father, also an education activist, were approached by a New York Times reporter about filming a documentary. After Class Dismissed: Malala’s Story was made, Yousafzai revealed her identity as the BBC blogger and began to appear on television to promote female education. 

Death threats 

Yousafzai’s high profile led to constant death threats. On 9 October 2012, the 15-year-old was shot in the head by a masked Taliban gunman while travelling on her school bus. In her Podium post this week, she described how the “white school bus went red with blood”. She was told that she “stood still and silent” as she stared at the Taliban fighter before falling into her friend’s lap.

The life-threatening bullet was successfully removed but had caused damage to her brain. Yousafzai was initially treated at a Pakistani military hospital but travelled to the UK for life-saving treatment at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, accompanied by her family. By 17 October she was out of her coma and had an operation to reconstruct her skull the following February. 

By the time Yousafzai recovered from her injuries, “she had become a global icon of the human toll of Islamist extremism, meeting with prime ministers and presidents”, said The New Yorker.

Campaigning for change

Yousafzai has gained support and admiration from politicians, actors and musicians all over the world, and is a global voice for girls’ rights to an education. On her 16th birthday in July 2013, she spoke at a “Malala Day” event at the UN in her first public speech since the attempt on her life.

In the same year, she and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai founded the Malala Fund, championing the right for girls globally to receive 12 years of free, safe education. Her memoir, I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, was published in October 2013. It was described as “fearless” by The Guardian and “riveting” by The Washington Post.

Yousafzai has met some of the world’s most powerful people, including Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama. The former president’s wife told Vogue this year that “right away, it was clear [Yousafzai] belonged in a room with the President of the United States”.

Yousafzai has also been a fierce advocate for refugee rights, sharing her own experience and campaigning for the protection of others. Of her 2019 book, We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World, she told Bustle: “I hope that by sharing the stories of those I have met in the last few years I can help others understand what’s happening and have compassion for the millions of people displaced by conflict.”

Laureate and student

In 2014, Yousafzai became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing the accolade with Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi. The pair were recognised “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”.

However, the activist admits feeling “a bit embarrassed” about mentioning the Prize in her personal statement when applying for Oxford, and so omitted to mention it. 

At university, Yousafzai relished being surrounded by her peers and enjoyed activities as casual as trips to McDonald’s. Her room was a constant “hang-out spot”, and she was “the essay crisis queen”, said Vogue, with 2am library stints a common occurrence for the philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) student.

Looking back

In March 2018, Yousafzai returned to Pakistan for the first time since the attack. “That was the highlight of 2018. I went home and saw my friends, my school teachers, my neighbours, my family members, everyone. We met like hundreds of people there and it was beautiful to see our home again,” she told Seventeen magazine.

“They had still kept [the house] as it was before and my school trophies, books, my bed cover, everything was still there and it was just so beautiful to see that. In a way, it was a sense of completion. I always felt like there was something missing in my life.”

Looking forward

In June, Yousafzai told Vogue that she lies awake for hours at night with uncertainty about what she will do next in her thoroughly documented life. Continued advocacy work is definitely part of the plan, and politics “is not something I have rejected completely”, she told the magazine.

Her production company, Extracurricular, which promises to make documentaries on serious topics, including women’s rights, as well as dramas, comedies and children’s series, has agreed to a multi-year partnership with Apple TV+.

Yousafzai will undoubtedly continue to campaign for the rights of women and girls around the world. “Without the crowds of people holding ‘I am Malala’ signs, without thousands of letters and offers of support, prayers and news stories, I might not have received medical care” in 2012, she wrote this week.

As she followed the unfolding situation in Afghanistan from her hospital bed, the activist said she had been able to help several of women’s rights activists and their families get to a safe place.

But she added “I know we can’t save everyone”.

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