Four years ago, rushing home from a school that the Taliban didn't want open, Malala Yousafzai heard a man say, "I will kill you." Terrified, she hurried on, only to realize that the man was on his cellphone and was, in fact, threatening to murder someone else. Last year, the Taliban did try to murder her: The teenaged Pakistani activist was shot in the head because she refused to stop going to school. Worse, she refused to stop arguing that all girls should have the same right.
They wanted her silence, but instead they gave her a megaphone. "Here I stand, one girl, among many," Malala said, addressing the United Nations Friday on her 16th birthday. "I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard."
A tiny figure wrapped in a pink shawl that once belonged to Benazir Bhutto, she needed to stand on a platform to reach the microphone. You would have forgiven her for speaking slowly or tentatively, or if her eyes had darted nervously around the room. It's been less than a year since a bullet ripped across the left side of her skull. Instead, she was remarkably poised. Some people just have a gift for refusing to shut up when they're told.
"We realize the importance of our voice when we are silenced," she said. "In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns."
She was speaking at the UN's Youth Assembly in support of education, particularly for girls, on the heels of a UNESCO report that shows 57 million children are denied schooling around the world (a figure that is dropping, but not rapidly enough). The Taliban, she said, are afraid of books and the change and equality they would bring. "They think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would point guns at people's heads just for going to school."
Whether she likes it or not, Malala has become a celebrity, the global face of a struggle to get girls into school and keep them there. Her memoir, I Am Malala, will be released in the fall. As she spoke, delegates took her picture. Her mother and father, who guided her activism, beamed. Only her little brother looked bored.
The audience was filled with teenagers from around the world whose stories might have been less dramatic than Malala's but hardly less stirring. A boy from Gambia talked about how he had to beg on the streets every morning to earn the $1 daily classroom fee. A young woman from Kenya said she became an activist after falling out of her wheelchair at school and realizing that, as a disabled girl, she was doubly damned. An Egyptian girl stood up to talk about how she'd been discouraged from going to school by everyone but her mother, who said: You don't want to be dependent on your brothers.
This was a refreshing change from the narrative we're used to in North America: These kids were desperate to get into the classroom instead of out of it. And, in a week dominated by the sight of Justin Bieber peeing in a bucket while being filmed by his cackling hench-elves, it was like watching an alternative universe unfold – a universe filled with nerdy, earnest teenagers bent on getting stuff done.
Everyone in the room was familiar with Malala's story. In 2009, as a seventh grader, she began writing an anonymous online blog for BBC Urdu about life as a student in Swat, where girls' schools were under fire and their lives threatened. Her family eventually left, but she never stopped speaking out. In October of last year, a Taliban fighter burst onto the truck carrying her to school, shouting, "Where is Malala? Who is Malala?" He shot her in the face, then wounded two of her friends.
She was treated by surgeons in Britain, where she now lives with her family. At home in northern Pakistan, as The New York Times reported this week, "the war on girls' education continues unabated." When one teacher's school was destroyed, she relocated the classroom to her backyard; only a quarter of her pupils showed up. In Quetta last month, a bus carrying students to the region's only women's university was blown up, killing 14. The device was detonated by a female suicide bomber. One of the survivors, a biology student, swore she would go back to school: "No matter what happens," Sana Bashir told the BBC, "I am determined to continue with my education."
Halfway around the world, another survivor remembered the dead of Quetta. Malala talked about the power that knowledge gave women – and how that frightened some men. Like all great speeches, hers had a rhetorical flourish: The pen was once mightier than the sword, and now it needed to be mightier than the gun. "One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world," she said. "Education is the only solution." And then she was finished, but it sounded like a beginning.