Islamabad (AFP) – Malala Yousafzai, once a teenage girl among many struggling to get an education in Pakistan is now a celebrated international rights campaigner, Nobel laureate, and student at Oxford University.
The 20-year-old girls’ education icon, who arrived in Pakistan on an unannounced visit Thursday for the first time since the desperate dash to a British hospital to save her life in 2012, is no ordinary young woman.
Few can lay claim to a Nobel Prize, or say they spent their 17th birthday lobbying Nigeria’s president to do more to free hundreds of girls kidnapped by Islamist militants, or confronted US President Barack Obama in the White House over the drone war in Pakistan.
She had already been in the public eye for years when a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus on October 9, 2012, asked “Who is Malala?”, and shot her in the head.
Her father Ziauddin, a school principal, helped propel the precociously talented girl from the Swat valley in northwest Pakistan into the limelight.
At his encouragement, Malala started writing a blog for the BBC’s Urdu service under a pseudonym in 2009, aged just 11, about life under the Taliban in Swat, which the Islamist militants had taken over in 2007.
Opponents were murdered, people were publicly flogged for supposed breaches of sharia law, women were banned from going to market, and girls were stopped from going to school.
Her blog, written anonymously with the clarity and frankness of a child, opened a window on the miseries being perpetrated in Pakistan.
But it was only after the shooting in 2012, and Malala’s subsequent near-miraculous recovery in Britain, that she became a truly global figure — a formidable and instantly recognisable force for human rights.
– Tea with the Queen –
She received a standing ovation for a 2013 address to the United Nations General Assembly in which she vowed never to be silenced.
That year she also won the European Union’s prestigious Sakharov human rights prize, and challenged Obama in the White House over drones.
In 2014, at the age of 17, she became the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing the award with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights activist.
She has also published an autobiography and been invited to tea with Queen Elizabeth II, achieving a level of fame more akin to a movie star than an education campaigner.
Her autobiography “I am Malala” revealed a more girlish side — she was a fan of Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber and the “Twilight” series of vampire romance novels. A documentary on her life released in 2015 also showed her soft spot for Brad Pitt.
But her activism has continued. On her 17th birthday in 2014 she was in Abuja, pushing President Goodluck Jonathan to meet with the parents of hundreds of girls who had been kidnapped by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
In 2014 she announced she would donate $50,000 (39,000 euros) to help rebuild United Nations schools in Gaza, then addressed a thousand schoolchildren in her home province via videolink, urging them to fight on for education.
She has also fought for Syrian refugees, declaring at the UN in 2015 that the world had “lost humanity” over their plight. On her 18th birthday she opened a school for Syrian girls in Lebanon.
She has criticised US President Donald Trump for his stance on refugees and Muslims, and fellow Nobel laureate Suu Kyi for her lack of action over the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar.
– Controversial at home –
Her Nobel win was lauded by Pakistan’s leaders, its liberal press and many girls and women in her native Swat who see her as an inspirational figure.
But she remains controversial among some conservatives at home, who view her as a Western agent on a mission to shame their country.
She remains undeterred, saying in 2013 that she hoped to become prime minister to “save” her nation.
In 2015 eight of the 10 men reportedly convicted and jailed for attempting to murder her were cleared and released. At the time, officials said they did not know where the men had gone.
Malala, meanwhile, has begun classes at Oxford University, where she has chosen to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a prestigious course that has produced many world leaders including late Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
Earlier this month a school she used her Nobel Prize money to construct and fund opened its doors and began taking students in Swat, near where she was shot.