By Jen Jones – Security was tight and anticipation was high as I, along with hundreds of other people, lined up in New York City on Thursday night to hear an unassuming 16-year-old from Swat, a remote valley in Pakistan, speak. She is a girl who requires no formal introduction as her name has become a global symbol of profound humility, hope, confidence and courage.
It is the name that passed the lips of a single gunman who boarded her school bus on October 9, 2012 and asked, “Who is Malala?”, before shooting her in the head at point blank range. It is the same name that is now trumpeted by countless admirers and supporters from every corner of the globe who know exactly who this extraordinary girl is.
Thomas Kaplan, Chairman Of The Board of the 92nd Street Y, took the stage of the jam packed Kaufmann Concert Hall and said, “You will soon be in the presence of greatness.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard this phrase used accurately. Christiane Amanpour, the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning CNN correspondent, was set to do a live, townhall-style interview with Malala Yousafzai; one woman, one girl, both whose courage under fire is legendary.
UN Ambassador Samantha Power, a member of President Obama’s Cabinet, kicked-off the program with a powerful recount of Malala’s story remarking that “her fearlessness terrified the Taliban” and that she was shot “because of their fear of knowledge, freedom, truth, and change.” She added, “Malala fought back with the only weapons she had… her voice, a blog and defiance of death threats.” Before welcoming the young education activist, Noble Peace Prize candidate, and now author to the stage, Ambassador Power closed by saying, “The Taliban tried to silence her, but they only amplified her message.”
Malala was joined by her father Ziauddin as Christiane Amanpour masterfully guided a conversation that was historical and cultural, yet deeply personal and emotional. For the next hour, everyone in the room was captivated.
“I did not clip the wings of my daughter to fly.” – Ziauddin Yousafzai
In hearing Ziauddin speak, it became very clear where Malala gets her unique blend of genuine kindness and conviction. A staunch education advocate, he is the former principal of a school he started in 2004. It had only four students then, but has since grown to include 1,100. Ziauddin is a progressive man from a very conservative part of the world. While he is very proud of his culture, he boldly rejects those mores that go against human rights.
He explained that when a family has a baby girl in Pakistan, they are offered sympathy. This is a cultural mindset which Ziauddin does not share. He said, “To me, a son and a daughter are equal.” When he is asked what he did to his daughter to make her so outspoken, defiant and strong willed, he prefers to explain what he did NOT do to his daughter to answer that question, replying, “I did not clip the wings of my daughter to fly.”
As the devoted father and daughter sat side by side throughout the interview, the immense love, respect and friendship they have for one another was palpable. It filled the room.
While Malala has no memory of being shot, she remembers the moments leading up to it and then waking up from a 7 day coma in a hospital in Burmingham, England. Simply happy to be alive, all of her concern went immediately to others. Where was her father? Was he safe? How was he going to pay for her medical care? Then came guilt upon learning that two of her friends had been shot as well. It was fine that she had been shot, but not them… not them. And all this, while the then 15-year-old had tubes running in and out of her body, a piece of her skull replaced by a metal plate, was unable to speak and lay alone, far away from the people and home she so loved. This is the selflessness that is Malala.
In speaking about her injuries and subsequent recovery she told Christiane, “My brain is safe, my spine is safe, I am healthy and I can still smile. I thank God for that.” Her mature perspective and exuberant attitude astounded me.
But of all the profound and wise-beyond-her-years statements Malala made Thursday night, the following hit me on the deepest level because it is a perfect example of this young woman’s indomitable spirit and boundless courage in the face of real terror orchestrated by cowards who blow up schools and slaughter innocent children. Christiane Amanpour asked her what she thinks about the new threat against her life that the Taliban issued earlier this week. Without hesitation and with remarkable confidence, Malala said…
“I no longer fear death. They can kill me, but they cannot kill my cause – education, peace, human rights.”
When Christiane asked Malala about the possibility of winning the Nobel Peace Prize, which was to be announced the following day, she responded, “It would be a great honor, but more than I deserve and a responsibility. There is much work I need to do.” She added that when she starts to significantly reduce the number of children (57 million) who are denied the basic right to an education all over the world, then the honor would be fitting and she would have no problem saying, “Ok… I deserve it now.” The way she so casually delivered this line with pure honesty, a big smile and a girlish flip of her hand, caused the audience to erupt into supportive laughter.
As for her plans for the future, Malala announced that her present goal is to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This came as no surprise after learning that one of her personal heroes is Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first and only female Prime Minister and the country’s most popular democratic leader. Also operating in the shadow of perpetual death threats from radical Islamists, Ms. Bhutto was tragically assassinated on December 27, 2007.
Prior to Malala’s new political aspirations, she shared that she wanted to be a doctor, one of only two professional fields available to girls in Pakistan (the other is a teacher). But, from her perspective, she sees a doctor’s work as being limited in terms of the good it can do for patients in one specific geographic area. She told us, “If I am Prime Minister, I can be the doctor of the whole country.”
In some respects, Malala Yousafzai is a typical 16-year-old… she giggles, she’s playful, she has moments of shyness, she loves her friends, she adores her family, she fights with her two brothers, AND… she even likes listening to Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. But, this is no ordinary girl. She is a truly extraordinary human being.
To say I was in the presence of greatness, feels like an understatement. I was overwhelmed, I was inspired, and I was awed as I sat before this mild mannered 16-year-old girl who not only has the desire, but the ability to affect such profound change on the entire world, across borders, cultures and religions.
Armed with her mighty pen and paper, powerful voice, dogged determination, and saintly compassion, I know I am not alone in believing that Malala will accomplish everything she sets out to do and so much more. This is a night I will never forget.
My very special thanks to WYSK Brenda Berkman and women’s historian/political consultant Pam Elam for inviting me to this special event as their guest. I was honored and am so very grateful for the gift they gave me.
Jen Jones is Co-Founder and Managing Editor of Women You Should Know
All photos courtesy of the 92nd Street Y. Photo credit: Joyce Culver