MALALA Yousafzai was named, fittingly, after Malalai, a female Afghan martyr who died in battle. When she was born, her father, a teacher named Ziauddin, refused to grieve the way fathers in his culture were expected upon having daughters. Instead, he wrote her into his clan’s family tree – a distinction usually reserved for boys.
Malala’s sense of justice came young. When, at an early age, she saw children living on a garbage dump, she wrote a letter to God. “Give me strength and courage,” she pleaded. “I want to make this world perfect.”
The winners of the Nobel peace prize, the Pakistani teenage activist Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights advocate, said the award represented a huge boost to the cause of children’s rights around the world. They also made it clear that they would seek to use the award to bring their two countries closer together and said they would invite their prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and Narendra Modi of India, to the awards ceremony in Oslo in December.
The joint award was welcomed by the two leaders, but 17-year-old Malala received some sceptical responses from conservative Pakistanis, who are suspicious of western motives. Since escaping death when she was shot in the head two years ago by a Taliban gunman for attending school in Pakistan’s Swat valley, she has been living and studying in England.
Malala heard the news of her win during a chemistry lesson in Birmingham, while Satyarthi found out via Twitter before receiving the phone call from the Nobel committee in Oslo. The two later spoke by phone and, according to Malala, agreed to combine their campaigns for child protection and education and to work to build stronger links between their two countries.
Speaking to the press in Birmingham, Malala said: “Through my story, I want to tell children to speak for themselves, not to wait for someone else. I stand up with all the children and this award is especially for them. It will give them courage,” she said.
In Mingora city in the Swat valley, Malala’s home region, people celebrated the award, distributing sweets in her honour in the central square, where the Pakistani Taliban once roamed freely.
“All those who were opposed to Malala should review their opinion about her,” said Neelum, a ninth-grade student and friend of Malala, who she described as one of the most talented girls she had ever met. “I imagine being her some day,” Neelum said. “She is not just an inspiration for the women of Swat, but for the world over.”
Ahmad Shah, a teacher in Swat, said Malala had “empowered the girls of Swat with her thoughts that education is important”.
“We’ve only read about Nobel laureates. Now, we have one from our own village. It’s unbelievable and yet it’s true,” Shah added, his voice breaking with emotion. “She’s a flicker of hope in an age of darkness.”
The Nobel committee’s decision was deliberately aimed at striking a delicate balance at a time of tension in Indian-Pakistani relations. Malala is a young Muslim, while Satyarthi is a Hindu elder statesman of the children’s rights campaign. They will share the prize money of £690,000. But the split award also reflected the dire state of children’s rights in both countries.
Sharif was one of many politicians to offer congratulations to Malala, but there was no escaping the irony that Malala was almost killed for her work advocating education for children and she is frequently accused by conservatives of selling out to the west.
Liaqat Baloch, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a right-wing religious-political party, said: “Malala is a Pakistani student and she is getting a lot of support and patronage abroad. On the surface, this is not a bad thing and we welcome this and there is no objection to the award, but the attack on Malala and then her support in the west creates a lot of suspicions.
“There are lots of girls in Pakistan who have been martyred in terrorist attacks, women who have been widowed, but no-one gives them an award. So these … activities are suspicious.”
In India, Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, the revered independence leader who became a proponent of non-violent protest, said that in recent years all Nobel prizes had been in the tradition of his famous forebear.
“Malala personifies non-violent resistance admirably and both she and Kailash Satyarthi also personify the commitment and solidarity that was the legacy of the work of all the illustrious leaders of (the Indian) independence movement,” Gandhi said.
“Until yesterday, no politician was bothered or was interested in what he was doing and some were even irritated by him. Now they will all sing his paeans. I think my great-grandfather, with his sense of humour, would have laughed … he had long realised the hypocrisy of politicians.”
But there was no word from either country’s leaders on whether they would accept the invitation to attend the awards ceremony. Recent days have seen one of the worst outbreaks of violence on the border between India and Pakistan for a decade, with about 20 killed and tens of thousands displaced by artillery barrages.
May the voice of peace prevail.