From Fed-Up Follower to Martyred Leader

Her name is Malala Yousufzai. She is 14 years old. Two days ago she was shot in the neck in her hometown in Pakistan. The shooter belonged to the Taliban, the militant Muslim organization that promptly claimed responsibility for the attack. The reason? Malala’s persistent insistence that she had the right to attend school.

According to her station in life, Malala, the daughter of a school teacher, was an utterly ordinary girl. However from the age of 11, she behaved in a way that by every measure was extraordinary. She took it on herself, in effect single-handedly, to protest the restrictions of life under the Taliban. The initial arrow in Malala’s quiver was the worldwide web. That is, her campaign began with a blog that described the rigors and terrors of life under the Taliban – especially for women and girls. (She lives in Swat, which some five years ago was overrun by the Taliban.) Her blog gradually transformed Malala from unknown and insignificant into the face or, at least, a face of Pakistani resistance to extremism. She campaigned tirelessly for her cause, organized a fund for poor girls to attend school, and last November was awarded Pakistan’s first National Peace Prize. In short, even before she was shot, Malala Yousufzai had morphed from follower to leader.

But the attack made her a martyr. It galvanized not only the Pakistani people – Twitter lit up – but the Pakistani elite. Historically Pakistani politicians and high ranking members of the military have been reluctant to take on the Taliban. This time though was different. This time the authorities had the guts to speak out. The normally reticent Chief of the Army was typical. He personally went to Malala’s hospital bedside and then issued this statement: “In attacking Malala, the terrorists have failed to grasp that she is not only an individual, but an icon of courage and hope.”

It’s not yet clear how long the outrage will last, or how deep really is the national wound. Pakistan is, after all, no stranger to trauma. Similarly, it is not yet clear that Malala Yousufzai will play in the future the role she has played in the past. Among other reasons, her injuries were severe and the prognosis is uncertain. But one thing is sure: Should she recover and resume her previous leadership role, she will, as a consequence of her martyrdom, have greater power and influence than she or anyone else could earlier have imagined.

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