This morning the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to its youngest winner ever — Malala Yousafzai, a 17-year-old woman from Pakistan. She and Kailash Satyarthi of India received the Prize for their work to advance the rights of children and promote universal schooling.
Many selections of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee have been controversial — often they are criticized as highly politicized attempts to direct public discourse, rather than recognize true achievements in promoting peace — and even this award had an apparent political message. The Committee Chairman said: “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”
Regardless of the political overtones, this time the Committee made a very worthy choice. Yousafzai’s compelling personal story, and her courageous crusade for education, have been an inspiration to millions across the world. Ever since she overcame being shot for resisting Taliban edicts that barred girls from going to school and bravely continued to advocate — peacefully — for the advancement and schooling of girls, Yousafzai has been a living example of everything the Nobel Peace Prize is supposed to represent.
There is something important in the fact that Yousafzai is the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, too. A 15-year-old girl who is threatened, bullied, and then shot by religious extremists would seem to be powerless, but Yousafzai proved that perceptions of power can be wrong. Individuals, young and old, can make a difference.
You can’t help but be inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who resisted Taliban edicts that forbade girls from going to school. Now 16 years old, Yousafzai is a living, breathing example of the unique power of the individual to serve as an agent of change.
Yousafzai’s story reminds us of how different the world can be under repressive religious regimes. When she started a blog and advocated for education for Muslim girls in defiance of the edicts, the Taliban issued a death threat against her. Later a Taliban gunman attacked her on her school bus, and she was shot in the head and neck. She survived, went to Great Britain for brain surgery, and continues to be a strong voice for education even in the face of renewed Taliban threats.
This past week Yousafzai made a whirlwind tour of the United States. She met President Obama, the First Lady, and their 15-year-old daughter Malia, thanked him for the United States’ support of education, but also expressed the view that U.S. drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Yousafzai also deeply impressed Jon Stewart and the audience of The Daily Show by her patient insistence that violence and cruelty can only be defeated by education and peaceful dialogue.
Some people thought Yousafzai might win the Nobel Peace Prize. Instead the Prize went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I have no doubt that the group, which has worked to eliminate chemical weapons, has performed important work — but no organization can ever have the impact of one individual standing resolute in the face of tyranny. Malala Yousafzai has single-handedly focused attention on the need for education and the plight of girls and young women under the Taliban and, by extension, in other places where religious edicts and despotic governments have repressed their rights and freedoms. We can only hope that her message and example will ultimately bring about essential social changes in the benighted regions of the world.