She was following acts like Al Gore and Melinda Gates, but her predecessors were probably more likely to be intimidated by the reputation of 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai than vice versa. Ten months since a bullet launched a teenage activist from Pakistan’s Swat Valley into the global conscious, the girl almost killed by a Taliban gunman has spoken at the United Nations, is celebrated globally with a day of her own, recently launched an international fund for children’s education, and is about to publish a memoir.
On Monday, fresh off her first-ever Twitter chat, a serene, scarved Yousafzai took the stage with her father, Ziauddin, and long-time supporter Shiza Shahid, at the Social Good Summit, a three-day conference hosted by Mashable in New York City.
“When I see this support and the love of people, I forget about the incident,” she told moderator Elizabeth Gore, the United Nations Foundation’s resident entrepreneur. “When I look at smiles, support, and love I think I am the luckiest, I am the most lucky girl. You all stood up for me.”
It was a fitting setting and audience for the day Malala launched her multi-platform campaign, opening Twitter and Facebook accounts, along with a new website, to promote the Malala Fund, intent on harnessing the thousands who proclaimed “I am Malala” to advocate for educating every child.
Her fame, which left her unable to return home to Pakistan for safety reasons, came instantaneously. While she maintains an understanding and wisdom of someone twice her age, her two brothers haven’t quite grasped the role their sister now plays on the international stage. She relayed a touching story from four months ago, when the youngest, a nine-year-old, asked her, “Malala, I can’t understand why you’re getting awards and people say ‘You’re Malala.’ What have you done?”
“What can I tell him? How can I answer?” she asked, but quickly laughed. “They’re still naughty.”
A major enabler of Malala’s activism is her father, poet and educator Ziauddin Yousafzai, who sat next to her in a dark suit. “I only did one thing as a father,” he began. “That is that I accepted her as a free individual. In most parts of the world when a girl is born, right from the very beginning, her wings are clipped—she's not free to fly. I tried to make her free and independent and I dream for her all that is good.”
They both had harsh words for the extremists who’ve made girls’ education such a dangerous topic in the Middle East. “If the boys and girls don’t have school bags on the back and society is ignorant it’s very easy for [the Taliban] to put suicide jackets on them,” Ziauddin said. Malala reiterated that she would not exact revenge upon the man who shot her, saying, “A Talib chose guns to solve problem, we chose our voices.”
Earlier in the day, Malala joined forces with U.N. Education Envoy Gordon Brown to begin raising $175 million for the nearly half-million Syrian children refugees in Lebanon. She spoke about her dream for children to return to school in war zones like Syria and countries where children are enslaved like India. “A change is coming, a change in mindset is coming, a change in thinking is coming,” her father predicted.
Malala, called by Gore “one of the wisest people I’ve ever met,” echoed Ziauddin's sentiment, referencing one of her inspirations: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “At that time he was saying I have a dream, he didn’t know tomorrow his dream would come true,” she said. “Today it seems like a dream tomorrow there would be equality and girls educated. It seems like a dream now, but in the future it could be reality.”