For the Nobel Peace Prize this year, I was rooting for Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who a year ago was shot in the head by a shaking, demented terrorist whose allegiance to the Taliban tells us all we need to know about the lethality of religious fundamentalism. Any kind of fundamentalism, really. It appeared to be as sure a pick as any since Nelson Mandela won it in 1993. Malala would have been the youngest person ever to win a Nobel, and unlike the prize awarded Barack Obama in 2009, this one has been earned.
As it turned out, the Nobel committee, which has a distinguished history of making slushy choices, had other ideas. It awarded the prize to the United Nations’ Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, currently responsible for the hoped-for removal and demolition of chemical weapons in Syria. The choice may be unassailable. But it’s uninteresting, its half-life briefer than even last year’s in-house award to the European Union. And it doesn’t diminish Malala’s accomplishment.
Anyone who learns of this devout Muslim girl’s story can’t avoid to be moved, often to tears, by the eloquence she began to show when she was 11 years old and was discovered by Adam Ellick, a New York Times filmmaker, in 2009. She is the daughter of an idealist and poet who had opened a school for girls 14 years before in a part of Pakistan where education for girls is considered unnecessary, whether the Taliban is there or not. In 2009 the Taliban ordered all girls’ schools shut. Malala detested those who would get in her way, and began to speak out against the Taliban. It was like wearing a target.
There’s a particularly moving scene in the documentary, one of many, where Malala is sad because she has to put her school uniform away. She loves the uniform. It symbolizes her passion for school. But she can’t wear it because she can’t afford to draw attention to herself as she makes her way to school. That struck me particularly, in light of the stupid uniform wars we still fight here in Florida, for all the wrong reasons.
The documentary makes clear that Malala was her father’s daughter in sometimes uncomfortable ways — the way tennis fathers pushing their daughters’ stardom make you cringe, as Ellick himself points out. But the reality is that it was Ellick’s documentary that gave Malala her stardom, the prizes she received, the money and gifts her father’s school received, the blogging platform the BBC then gave her. It all amplified her voice for girls’ education and against the Taliban. It also sharpened the target on her head.
On October 9, 2012, as she was riding a school bus full of girls, the Taliban terrorist boarded, found her, and shot her in the head and neck. Malala survived. She has been slightly disfigured, but only physically so. The assassination attempt has only amplified her campaign’s reach. Malala has already spoken more unforgettable phrases in her 16 years than Yogi Berra has in his 88, like the way she ended her appearance in July before the United Nations General Assembly, where she delivered Martin Luther King’s dream speech equivalent of girls’ education. She ended with that unforgettable line: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
She is that child, holding that pen, and there’s some wonder in the notion that she’s barely begun.
We don’t have very many public figures like her these days, genuine heroes unblemished by something seedy and inauthentic, and always lurking in the frame somewhere. Maybe that’s the inevitable ransom of age and media exposure. If so, let’s hope it’s a late onset, though if Malala could survive a Taliban bullet, she must have a few defiant surprises up her veil yet.