Malala Yousafzai’s Incredible Journey: From Activist to Global Icon

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Early Activism

Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, speaks to the press upon her arrival for a state visit.

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, one of Yousafzai’s sources of inspiration

Following the documentary by New York Times reporter Adam B. Ellick, Malala Yousafzai’s profile rose significantly. She was interviewed on the national Pashto-language station AVT Khyber, the Urdu-language Daily Aaj, and Canada’s Toronto Star. She made her second appearance on the national current affairs show Capital Talk on August 19, 2009. By December 2009, her identity as the BBC blogger “Gul Makai” was publicly revealed. Malala began appearing on television to advocate for female education, a cause that garnered her widespread attention.

From 2009 to 2010, Malala served as the chair of the District Child Assembly of the Khpal Kor Foundation. In 2011, she received training from Aware Girls, a local girls’ empowerment organization run by Gulalai Ismail. The training provided advice on women’s rights and strategies for peaceful opposition to radicalization through education.

In October 2011, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African activist, nominated Malala for the International Children’s Peace Prize of the Dutch international children’s advocacy group, KidsRights Foundation. She became the first Pakistani girl to be nominated for this prestigious award. The announcement praised Malala’s courage, stating, “Malala dared to stand up for herself and other girls and used national and international media to let the world know girls should also have the right to go to school.” Although the award was eventually won by Michaela Mycroft of South Africa, Malala’s nomination brought her further recognition.

Malala’s public profile continued to rise when she was awarded Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize in December 2011. On December 19, 2011, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani awarded her the National Peace Award for Youth. During the ceremony, Malala stated that she was not affiliated with any political party but aspired to found a national party to promote education. At her request, the prime minister directed the establishment of an IT campus in the Swat Degree College for Women, and a secondary school was renamed in her honor. By 2012, she was planning to organize the Malala Education Foundation, aimed at helping poor girls attend school.

In 2012, Malala attended the International Marxist Tendency National Marxist Summer School. In a television interview the same year, she cited Barack Obama, Benazir Bhutto, and Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan) as inspirations for her activism. Bacha Khan, a Pashtun leader known for his nonviolent Khudai Khidmatgar resistance movement against the British Raj, alongside Obama and Bhutto, significantly influenced Malala’s approach and dedication to her advocacy for education and women’s rights.

Murder Attempt

As Malala Yousafzai gained more recognition for her activism, the threats against her life increased. Death threats were published in newspapers and slipped under her door. On Facebook, where she was active, she began to receive menacing messages. Eventually, a spokesperson for the Pakistani Taliban announced that they were “forced” to act against her. In the summer of 2012, Taliban leaders unanimously decided that she must be killed.

“I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly. Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, and that education is our basic right.”

— Malala Yousafzai envisions a confrontation with the Taliban

On October 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala as she rode home on a bus after taking an exam in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. She was 15 years old at the time. Reports indicate that a masked gunman boarded the bus and demanded, “Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise, I will shoot you all.” Upon being identified, Malala was shot with a single bullet that traveled 18 inches (46 cm) from the side of her left eye, through her neck, and lodged in her shoulder. Two other girls, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, were also wounded in the attack. Both were stable enough following the shooting to speak to reporters and provide details of the attack.

Medical Treatment

After the shooting, Malala Yousafzai was airlifted to a military hospital in Peshawar. Doctors operated immediately as swelling had developed in the left part of her brain, damaged by the bullet that passed through her head. After a five-hour operation, they successfully removed the bullet, which had lodged in her shoulder near her spinal cord. The day after the attack, doctors performed a decompressive craniectomy, removing part of her skull to allow room for swelling.

On October 11, 2012, a panel of Pakistani and British doctors decided to transfer Yousafzai to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi. Dr. Mumtaz Khan estimated her chance of survival at 70%. Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced plans to move Yousafzai to Germany for advanced medical treatment once she was stable enough to travel. A medical team would accompany her, with the government covering the cost of her treatment. On October 13, doctors reduced Yousafzai’s sedation, and she moved all four limbs.

Offers to treat Yousafzai came from around the world. On October 15, Yousafzai traveled to the United Kingdom for further treatment, with the approval of her doctors and family. She was admitted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, known for treating military personnel injured in conflict. Media reports stated that the Pakistani government would cover all expenses related to her transport, medical care, and accommodation.

By October 17, 2012, Yousafzai had come out of her coma, was responding well to treatment, and had a good chance of fully recovering without brain damage. Updates on October 20 and 21 indicated that she was stable but still fighting an infection. By November 8, she was photographed sitting up in bed. On November 11, she underwent an eight-and-a-half-hour surgery to repair her facial nerve.

Yousafzai was discharged from the hospital on January 3, 2013, to continue her rehabilitation at her family’s temporary home in the West Midlands. She had weekly physiotherapy and underwent a five-hour operation on February 2 to reconstruct her skull and restore her hearing with a cochlear implant, after which she was reported to be in stable condition. In July 2014, Yousafzai wrote that her facial nerve had recovered up to 96%.

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughter Malia meet with Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban a year ago, in the Oval Office, Oct. 11, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


The attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai received extensive media coverage worldwide, resulting in a wave of sympathy and outrage. Protests against the attack erupted in several Pakistani cities the day after the incident. Over 2 million people signed the Right to Education campaign’s petition, leading to the ratification of Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill. Pakistani officials announced a 10 million rupee (approximately US$105,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of the attackers. Responding to concerns about their safety, Yousafzai’s father declared: “We wouldn’t leave our country if my daughter survives or not. We have an ideology that advocates peace. The Taliban cannot stop all independent voices through the force of bullets.”

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, described the shooting as an attack on “civilized people.” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a “heinous and cowardly act.” U.S. President Barack Obama found the attack “reprehensible, disgusting, and tragic.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Yousafzai’s bravery in standing up for girls’ rights and condemned the attackers for being threatened by such empowerment. British Foreign Secretary William Hague labeled the shooting “barbaric” and noted that it had shocked both Pakistan and the world.

American singer Madonna dedicated her song “Human Nature” to Yousafzai at a Los Angeles concert on the day of the attack, displaying a temporary Malala tattoo on her back. Actress Angelina Jolie wrote an article explaining the event to her children and answering their questions about why the men felt the need to kill Malala. Jolie later donated $200,000 to the Malala Fund for girls’ education. Former First Lady Laura Bush wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post comparing Yousafzai to Holocaust diarist Anne Frank.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, the chief spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that Yousafzai “is the symbol of the infidels and obscenity” and that if she survived, the group would target her again. In the days following the attack, the Pakistani Taliban reiterated their justification, claiming Yousafzai had been brainwashed by her father and propagating against Islam. They cited religious scripture, stating that the Quran allows for the killing of those who speak against Islam, even children.

On October 12, 2012, a group of Islamic clerics in Pakistan issued a fatwā against the Taliban gunmen who attacked Yousafzai. Islamic scholars from the Sunni Ittehad Council publicly denounced the Taliban’s attempts to use religious justification for the shooting.

While the attack was widely condemned in Pakistan, some fringe political parties and extremist groups circulated conspiracy theories, suggesting that the shooting was staged by the American CIA to justify continued drone attacks. The Pakistani Taliban and some pro-Taliban elements labeled Yousafzai an “American spy.”

United Nations Petition

On October 15, 2012, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Malala Yousafzai in the hospital and launched a petition in her name, championing the cause she fought for. Using the slogan “I am Malala,” the petition aimed to ensure that no child would be left out of school by 2015, aspiring to make education accessible to girls like Malala around the world. Brown announced his intention to present the petition to President Zardari in Islamabad in November.

The petition included three key demands:

  1. A Plan for Education in Pakistan: The petition called on Pakistan to agree to a comprehensive plan to provide education for every child in the country.
  2. Outlaw Discrimination Against Girls: It urged all countries to implement laws that prohibit discrimination against girls, ensuring equal educational opportunities.
  3. Global Commitment to Education: The petition demanded that international organizations take decisive steps to ensure that the world’s 61 million out-of-school children receive an education by the end of 2015.

This initiative aimed to galvanize global support and commitment to education, inspired by Malala’s courage and advocacy for girls’ education.

Criminal Investigation, Arrests, and Acquittals

The day after the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced that the Taliban gunman responsible for the attack had been identified. Police named 23-year-old Atta Ullah Khan, a chemistry graduate student, as the shooter. By 2015, Khan was still at large, possibly residing in Afghanistan.

Initially, six men were arrested for their involvement in the attack, but they were later released due to a lack of evidence. In November 2012, US sources confirmed that Mullah Fazlullah, the cleric who ordered the attack, was hiding in eastern Afghanistan. Fazlullah was killed in a U.S.-Afghan airstrike in June 2018.

On September 12, 2014, Major General Asim Bajwa, Director of ISPR, informed the media in Islamabad that the ten attackers belonged to a militant group called “Shura.” Bajwa revealed that Israrur Rehman was the first member of the group to be identified and apprehended. Information from his interrogation led to the arrest of all other group members. The operation was a coordinated effort by the ISI, police, and military.

In April 2015, reports indicated that the ten men arrested were sentenced to life in prison by Judge Mohammad Amin Kundi, a counterterrorism judge, with the possibility of parole after 25 years. However, it was unclear if the actual attackers were among those sentenced. In June, it was revealed that eight of the ten men, who had confessed to helping plan the attack during a secret trial, had been acquitted. Insiders disclosed that one of the men freed was the mastermind behind the assassination attempt. It is believed that those involved in the shooting fled to Afghanistan shortly after the attack and were never captured. The release of suspects came to light when the London Daily Mirror attempted to locate the men in prison. Senior police official Salim Khan and the Pakistan High Commission in London stated that the eight men were released due to insufficient evidence connecting them to the attack.


From March 2013 to July 2017, Malala Yousafzai attended Edgbaston High School, an all-girls school in Birmingham, UK. She excelled academically, receiving 6 A*s and 4 As at GCSE level in August 2015. For her A-Levels, she studied Geography, History, Mathematics, and Religious Studies. Yousafzai applied to several prestigious universities, including Durham University, the University of Warwick, and the London School of Economics (LSE). In December 2016, she was interviewed at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and received a conditional offer of three As in her A-Levels. In August 2017, she was accepted to study Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University.

In February 2020, climate change activist Greta Thunberg traveled to Oxford to meet Yousafzai, highlighting the connection between their advocacy efforts. On June 19, 2020, Yousafzai announced that she had completed her final examinations and graduated with honors in PPE from Oxford University.

Continuing Activism

“Traditions are not sent from heaven, they are not sent from God. It is we who make cultures, and we have the right to change it, and we should change it.”

—Yousafzai at the Girl Summit in London

“Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education, it will make a big impact.”

—Yousafzai expressed her concerns to Barack Obama about drone attacks fueling terrorism.

“I am convinced Socialism is the only answer, and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”

—Yousafzai expressed her belief in socialism in a letter to a meeting of Pakistani Marxists in Lahore.

Yousafzai addressed the United Nations in July 2013 and had an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. In September 2013, she spoke at Harvard University, and in October, she met with US President Barack Obama and his family; during that meeting, she confronted him about his use of drone strikes in Pakistan. In December, she addressed the Oxford Union. In July 2014, Yousafzai spoke at the Girl Summit in London, and in October 2014, she donated $50,000 to the UNRWA for the reconstruction of schools in the Gaza Strip.

Despite advocating for women’s and children’s rights, Yousafzai did not initially describe herself as a feminist. However, in 2015, she told Emma Watson that she decided to call herself a feminist after hearing Watson’s speech at the UN launching the HeForShe campaign.

On 12 July 2015, her 18th birthday, Yousafzai opened a school for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, near the Syrian border. The school, funded by the Malala Fund, offers education and training to girls aged 14 to 18. Yousafzai called on world leaders to invest in “books, not bullets.”

Yousafzai has repeatedly condemned the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. In June 2015, the Malala Fund released a statement in which Yousafzai argued that the Rohingya people deserve “citizenship in the country where they were born and have lived for generations” along with “equal rights and opportunities.” She urged world leaders, particularly in Myanmar, to “halt the inhuman persecution of Burma’s Muslim minority Rohingya people.” In September 2017, speaking in Oxford, Yousafzai said, “This should be a human rights issue. Governments should react to it. People are being displaced, they’re facing violence.” She also posted a statement on Twitter calling for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the treatment of the Rohingya people. Suu Kyi has avoided taking sides in the conflict or condemning violence against the Rohingya, leading to widespread criticism.

In 2014, Yousafzai stated that she wished to return to Pakistan following her education in the UK and, inspired by Benazir Bhutto, would consider running for prime minister: “If I can help my country by joining the government or becoming the prime minister, I would be up for this task.” She repeated this aim in 2015 and 2016. However, in 2018, Yousafzai noted that her goal had changed, stating that “now that I have met so many presidents and prime ministers around the world, it just seems that things are not simple, and there are other ways that I can bring the change that I want to see.” In a 2018 interview with David Letterman for Netflix’s show “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction,” Yousafzai was asked, “Would you ever want to hold a political position?” She replied, “Me? No.”


Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown arranged for Yousafzai’s appearance before the United Nations in July 2013. Brown also requested that McKinsey consultant Shiza Shahid, a friend of the Yousafzai family, chair Yousafzai’s charity fund, which gained the support of Angelina Jolie. Google’s vice-president Megan Smith also sits on the fund’s board.

In November 2012, the consulting firm Edelman began work for Yousafzai on a pro bono basis. According to the firm, this “involves providing a press office function for Malala.” The office employs five people and is headed by speechwriter Jamie Lundie. McKinsey also continues to assist Yousafzai.

Malala Day

Yousafzai on a special visit to Strasbourg in November 2013

On 12 July 2013, Yousafzai’s 16th birthday, she spoke at the UN to call for worldwide access to education. The UN dubbed the event “Malala Day.” Yousafzai wore one of Benazir Bhutto’s shawls to the UN, making her first public speech since the attack. She led the first-ever Youth Takeover of the UN, with an audience of over 500 young education advocates from around the world.

“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage were born … I am not against anyone, and neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I’m here to speak up for the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists.”

Malala with Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis in 2015

Yousafzai received several standing ovations. Ban Ki-moon, who also spoke at the session, described her as “our hero.” Yousafzai also presented the chamber with “The Education We Want,” a Youth Resolution of education demands written by Youth for Youth, in a process coordinated by the UN Global Education First Youth Advocacy Group. She told her audience:

“Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy, and every girl who has raised their voice for their rights.”

The Pakistani government did not comment on Yousafzai’s UN appearance, amid a backlash against her in Pakistan’s press and social media.

Words from the speech were used as lyrics for “Speak Out,” a song by Kate Whitley commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and broadcast on International Women’s Day 2017.

Jon Stewart Interview

On 8 October 2013, at the age of 16, Malala Yousafzai appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, an American television program, marking her first major late-night appearance. She was invited as a guest to promote her book, I Am Malala. During the program, they delved into topics such as her assassination attempt, human rights, and women’s education.

Yousafzai left Jon Stewart speechless with her poignant reflections on her thoughts after learning that the Pakistani Taliban wanted her dead:

“I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I would tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.'”

Stewart, visibly moved by her words, concluded the conversation by stating: “I am humbled to speak with you.” Yousafzai made a return appearance on the show following the 2015 Charleston Church Shooting, where Stewart opened the program by saying:

“Our guest is an incredible person who suffered unspeakable violence by extremists and her perseverance and determination through that to continue on is an incredible inspiration and to be quite honest with you, I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world I would rather talk to tonight than Malala so that’s what we’ll do and sorry about no jokes.”

Nobel Peace Prize

On 10 October 2014, Malala Yousafzai was announced as the co-recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous advocacy against the suppression of children and young people and her campaign for the right of all children to receive education. At the age of 17, Yousafzai became the youngest Nobel laureate in history. She shared the prestigious award with Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India. Yousafzai’s Nobel Prize made her the second Pakistani to receive a Nobel Prize after Abdus Salam, who was honored in 1979 for Physics.

Following the announcement of her Nobel Peace Prize, reactions were mixed. While there was widespread praise for Yousafzai’s dedication and bravery, there were also some who questioned or criticized the decision. Norwegian jurist Fredrik Heffermehl, known for his advocacy on Nobel Prize criteria, remarked on the occasion: “This is not for fine people who have done nice things and are glad to receive it. All of that is irrelevant. What Nobel wanted was a prize that promoted global disarmament.”


During the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, Adán Cortés, a college student from Mexico City and an asylum seeker, interrupted the proceedings to protest against the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping in Mexico. Security personnel quickly removed him from the venue. Yousafzai later expressed sympathy for Cortés and acknowledged the global challenges faced by young people, stating, “There are problems in Mexico, there are problems even in America, even here in Norway, and it is really important that children raise their voices.”

Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize recognition solidified her status as a global symbol of courage, education advocacy, and youth empowerment.

[To be continued in Next blog]

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