The story of Malala Yousafzai is already the stuff of legend. She’s the Pakistani teenager who dared to defy the Taliban, surviving a horrifying assassination attempt to emerge as a symbol of bravery, and a campaigner for girls’ education, telling the United Nations last month to send books and pens, rather than tanks, to troubled parts of the world.
And that’s not counting this week. On Sunday, she received an invitation to a Buckingham Palace reception with the Queen. On Tuesday, the now 16-year-old published her autobiography, I Am Malala. (The title is a chin-up answer to the Taliban gunman who boarded a school bus last Oct. 9, asking “Who is Malala?” before shooting her in the head). The book immediately shot onto bestseller lists.
Wednesday is the anniversary of the day she was shot. And on Friday, Ms. Yousafzai is the odds-on favourite to become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
If Ms. Yousafzai wins the Nobel, there will be quiet joy in her native Swat Valley – school-aged girls there are reportedly praying in secret for her victory – as well as loud outrage from a Taliban movement that condemned her once more this week as an enemy of Islam and threatened to try again to kill her.
Far away from all that, there might also be celebrations in the offices of the world’s biggest public relations firm, Edelman – which lists the likes of Starbucks and Microsoft alongside Ms. Yousafzai in its roster of clients – as well as those of McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm that makes billions by advising governments around the world.
Ms. Yousafzai’s story is certainly worthy of telling. But she’s had an unprecedented amount of help getting her message out.
“Her life is a miracle,” her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, told an interviewer this summer. “I think I’m not the only person who owns her as a daughter. She’s owned by everybody. She’s the daughter of the world.”
But would the world have adopted Malala if she had stood up against, say, child labour in the production of iPhones, instead of the friendless Taliban? Or if she’d been wounded by a U.S. drone strike? Or if she didn’t speak such fluent English?
The global Malala Movement has led to a backlash in her native Pakistan, where some view her as a tool of the West, used to embarrass their country, culture and religion.
“In certain segments of society in Pakistan, whenever someone is backed by the West, there’s an instant suspicion that arises in the minds of Pakistanis,” Shiza Shahid, the head of the Malala Fund and a long-time family friend, said in a telephone interview from Islamabad. “There are segments in society who have felt that about Malala, which is unfortunate, because she is a girl whose heart beats very deeply for Pakistan.”
It was Mr. Yousafzai, an educator who ran a school for both boys and girls in Swat, who first introduced his daughter to the world. In 2009, he invited a New York Times documentary maker into the family’s home to talk about an edict from the Taliban – which then controlled the Swat Valley – banning girls in the region from attending school. An 11-year-old Malala quickly became the star of the show, telling the camera in English, “I want to get my education. I want to become a doctor,” before burying her face in her left hand, obviously despairing that she would realize those dreams.
The shooting last year – a brute attempt to silence the girl and her campaign – brought Ms. Yousafzai more attention than ever. As she miraculously staged a full recovery, political heavyweights around the world came to see what her father saw. She was lifted into the global limelight, a Gandhi for Muslim girls.
Among the first to visit Ms. Yousafzai after she was evacuated to a hospital in Birmingham, England, was former British prime minister Gordon Brown, now a United Nations special envoy for global education.
He asked the family what he could do for help, and they requested that Ms. Shahid, who was then working for McKinsey, help them deal with the media storm. Mr. Brown put in a call to McKinsey senior partner Dominic Barton, who had occasionally advised Mr. Brown while he was prime minister, and asked him to lend Ms. Shahid to the Malala Fund.
It wasn’t a tough sell. Public relations-savvy businesspeople and politicians knew a winning cause when they saw one and were quick to jump on board. Edelman took up Ms. Yousafzai’s cause pro bono, setting up a five-person “Malala press office” in London, headed by well-known speechwriter Jamie Lundie. They’ve been carefully doling out media access to their client to coincide with her book launch and Nobel Prize week. There’s still a three-week waiting list of journalists who want to talk to her.