When the deputy head mistress pulled Malala Yousafzai out of high school chemistry class one morning a year ago, Malala nervously searched her mind for recent offenses.
“You usually get a bit scared if your head teacher comes, because you think you are being caught doing something,” Malala recalled. “But she told me: ‘I need to tell you something. You have won the Nobel Peace Prize.’”
After a brief celebration, Malala returned to class for the rest of the school day; as the world’s news organizations clamored for interviews, she wrestled with physics. She’s a champion of girls’ education worldwide, she explains, and that must include her own.
Malala, now a high school junior, was in New York this past week to address the United Nations, attend the premiere of a full-length documentary movie about her life and hound world leaders to pay attention to girls’ education.
She hopes the movie, He Named Me Malala, will galvanize a push to provide 12 years of quality education to all children worldwide.
The movie relates Malala’s extraordinary story: How she grew up in rural Pakistan, became an advocate for girls’ education and spoke out against the Taliban. Then when she was 15 years old, Taliban gunmen retaliated: They stopped her school bus and shot her in the head.
As she hovered between life and death, supporters held candlelight vigils, and a plane rushed her to a hospital in Birmingham, England, that specializes in brain injuries. Today, the left side of her face is still partly paralyzed, and she is somewhat deaf in that ear, but she’s as outspoken as ever. And the Taliban is still determined to kill her, so she and her family remain in Birmingham.
The movie offers a revealing portrait of a global icon — who’s also a teenager giggling about sports heroes, worrying about acceptance by peers and rolling her eyes at siblings.
“People think she is, like, very kind, and she speaks for people’s rights,” her younger brother Khushal grumbles at the breakfast table, needling her. “But that’s not true, I think. At home she is so violent!”
Malala squeals with outrage. “I’m not violent!”
It’s clearly awkward to be a teenager and have your sibling rivalries, your skirt length (long) and your boyfriend history (none) explored on the big screen, along with your painstaking physical therapy to recover from brain damage. But Malala embraces the film as a way to highlight the transformative power of education.
Her own mother is deeply conservative — she has discouraged Malala from shaking hands with men or looking them in the eye — but is moderating her views and now also learning to read for the first time. The mother also takes the global fuss about her daughter in stride, and has no problem ordering a Nobel laureate to clean up her room.
Malala’s main message is that all children should get 12 years of free, safe, quality education, and that girls are too often left behind. About 63 million girls between the age of 6 and 15 are not in school.
Millions of others attend but sit in classes of 100 students, taught in a language they don’t understand, without so much as a pencil, and learn nothing. Teachers often don’t show up (the big truancy problem in the developing world is with teachers), and when teachers do show up, they sometimes prey on girls.
A 2007 U.N. study in Pakistan found that 24 percent of primary schools don’t have any textbooks for students, and 46 percent lack desks for them.
Yet education is still the best hope to transform countries as well as individuals. Malala’s father, Ziauddin, told me that when he was a teenager he was brainwashed into praying for war between Muslims and non-Muslims, hoping to become a martyr. The antidote to such extremism, he says, is education.
Malala is determined not to be used as window dressing by world leaders, and her advice to presidents and prime ministers is to focus not on elementary school or middle school but on 12 full years of education. “Your dreams were too small,” she tells U.N. members. “Your achievements are too small. Now it is time that you dream bigger.”
She scolded Nigeria’s president at the time for not helping girls abducted by Boko Haram. She told President Barack Obama at the White House that drones were counterproductive and that he should invest in education. Just eight days of global military spending, she notes, would pay to get all remaining kids in school worldwide.
“No world leader would want nine years of education for their children,” she told me. “Every world leader wants quality education for their children. They need to think of the rest of the world’s children as their own children.”
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.