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Profile - Malala Yousafzai's journey from Pakistani schoolgirl to peace symbol
October 10, 2014 / 12:47 PM / 3 years ago

Profile - Malala Yousafzai's journey from Pakistani schoolgirl to peace symbol

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Malala Yousafzai’s journey from Pakistani schoolgirl to Nobel Peace Prize winner has entranced the world as the teenager emerged defiant after a near-fatal attack by the Taliban to fight for girls’ rights.

Pakistani schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai poses for pictures during a photo opportunity at the United Nations in the Manhattan borough of New York August 18, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/Files

Two years ago, Yousafzai was travelling home from school in Mingora in the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan when Taliban gunmen boarded her school bus and shot the 15-year-old in the head at point-blank range.

The attack was a punishment for her public campaigning from the age of 11 for the right for girls to go to school, using a blog and then media appearances to defy the militant Islamic group’s ban on female education and bombing of schools.

Yousafzai, now 17, and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, a school principal and education activist, had become well-known in Pakistan for their campaign and refused to be silenced despite repeated threats from the Taliban.

Fighting for her life, Yousafzai was treated in Pakistan before the United Arab Emirates provided an air ambulance to fly her to Britain where doctors repaired her skull with a titanium plate and operated to help restore lost hearing.

Following a remarkable recovery, she was unable to return to Pakistan due to continuing Taliban threats so set up a new life with her parents and two younger brothers in Birmingham in central England.

But perhaps more miraculous than her recovery is the journey that has seen her emerge from being the victim of a failed murder attempt to a global figurehead for peaceful protest and for the right of every child to go to school.

DEFYING THE TALIBAN

Dubbed by some “the bravest girl in the world”, Yousafzai herself has expressed surprise at where the past two years have led her, but she remains committed to continue her fight.

“You are helping me to bring awareness to the world of my cause, to which I have dedicated myself. Nothing is more important for me than the right of every child to be educated,” she once told an award ceremony.

Two years on, Yousafzai has won a list of awards, her portrait hangs in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery, and on her 16th birthday in July last year she spoke at the United Nations, saying: “One teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.”

Pakistani schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai gestures next to visiting children from Kiara's Youth Camp during a group photo opportunity at the Emancipation Village in Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain, July 31, 2014. REUTERS/Andrea De Silva/Files

Last year she published a memoir, “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban”, in which she relives the horror of the attack on Oct. 9, 2012.

In the book she also describes her life under the Taliban’s brutal rule of the Swat valley from the mid-2000s, talks about her ambition to enter politics, and tells of her homesickness and struggle to adjust to life in England.

Yousafzai describes herself as a competitive schoolgirl wanting to be top of the class but also tries to paint a picture of herself as a typical teenager who is a fan of Canadian pop idol Justin Bieber and the “Twilight” vampire romance novels.

Pakistani schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai (2nd L) shakes hands as she is welcomed during a meeting with the leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls Abuja campaign group, in Abuja July 13, 2014. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde/Files

But her maturity puts her at odds with many teenagers, particularly as she talks about Taliban threats.

“I don’t know why, but hearing I was being targeted did not worry me. It seemed to me that everyone knows they will die one day,” she wrote.

The West has lauded Yousafzai for her bravery, with her legions of fans including Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, a donor to The Malala Fund set up by the teenager and her family to help educate girls in Pakistan and around the world.

UNESCO figures show almost 58 million primary age children globally do not attend school.

In the last year she has also spoken out on child marriage and female genital mutilation.

But Yousafzai acknowledges with regret she is not so popular in Pakistan where she has been regarded by some as a stooge of the West. She firmly rejects suggestions she was pushed into her activist role by her father.

“People (in Pakistan) have lost trust in each other, but I would like everyone to know that I don’t want support for myself, I want the support to be for my cause of peace and education,” she wrote.

“I am Malala. My world has changed but I have not.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Emma Batha.

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