Runner-Up: Malala Yousafzai, the Fighter

In trying to silence this Pakistani schoolgirl, the Taliban amplified her voice. she is now a symbol of the struggle for women’s rights all over the world

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Illustration by Sliman Mansour for TIME
Illustration by Sliman Mansour for TIME

Ayesha Mir didn’t go to school on Tuesday, Nov. 27, the day after a security guard found a shrapnel-packed bomb under her family’s car. The 17-year-old Pakistani girl assumed, as did most people who learned about the bomb, that it was intended for her father, the television news presenter Hamid Mir, who often takes on the Taliban in his nightly news broadcasts. Traumatized by the near miss, Ayesha spent most of the day curled up in a corner of her couch, unsure whom to be angrier with: the would-be assassins or her father for putting himself in danger. She desperately wanted someone to help her make sense of things.

At around 10:30 p.m., she got her wish. Ayesha’s father had just come home from work, and he handed her his BlackBerry. “She wants to speak to you,” he said. The voice on the phone was weak and cracked, but it still carried the confidence that Ayesha and millions of other Pakistanis had come to know through several high-profile speeches and TV appearances.

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“This is Malala,” said the girl on the other end of the line. Malala Yousafzai, 15, was calling from the hospital in Birmingham, England, where under heavy guard she has been undergoing treatment since Oct. 16. “I understand that what happened was tragic, but you need to stay strong,” Malala told Ayesha. “You cannot give up.”

It was one of the few times Malala had called anyone in Pakistan since she was flown to England for specialized medical treatment after a Taliban assassin climbed onto her school bus, called out for her by name and shot her in the head on Oct. 9. Her brain is protected by a titanium plate that replaced a section of her skull removed to allow for swelling. But she spoke rapidly to the older girl in Urdu, encouraging her to stand up for her father even if doing so brought risks. As an outspoken champion of girls’ right to an education, Malala knew all about risk — and fear and consequences — when it comes to taking on the Taliban. “The way she spoke was so inspirational,” Ayesha says. “She made me realize that my father was fighting our enemies and that it was something I should be proud of, not afraid.” The next day Ayesha returned to school. And with that call, Malala began to return to what she seems born to do — passing her courage on to others.

Cover Photograph by Asim Hafeez

In trying, and failing, to kill Malala, the Taliban appear to have made a crucial mistake. They wanted to silence her. Instead, they amplified her voice. Since October her message has been heard around the world, from cramped classrooms where girls scratch out lessons in the dirt to the halls of the U.N. and national governments and NGOs, where legions of activists argue ever more vehemently that the key to raising living standards throughout the developing world is the empowerment of women and girls. Malala was already a spokesperson; the Taliban made her a symbol, and a powerful one, since in the age of social media and crowdsourced activism, a parable as tragic and triumphant as hers can raise an army of disciples.

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She has become perhaps the world’s most admired children’s-rights advocate, all the more powerful for being a child herself. Her primary cause — securing Pakistani girls’ access to education — has served to highlight broader concerns: the health and safety of the developing world’s children, women’s rights and the fight against extremism. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who is now the U.N.’s special envoy for global education, declared Nov. 10 Malala Day in honor of her and the more than 50 million girls around the world who are not at school. Nearly half a million people have signed petitions on Change.org to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize. That is not how the Taliban intended things to turn out.

If Malala decides to continue her crusade, hers will be a platform backed with financial means and wired with well-connected allies. “She’d be great as both a fundraiser and a public speaker,” says former First Lady Laura Bush, who’s spent years campaigning for women’s rights in Taliban-controlled areas. Several funds and initiatives have been founded, including at least one that Malala and her father will directly influence once she has recovered. However, a return to Pakistan, where Malala would likely be most effective, would be fraught with danger. The Taliban have on several occasions sworn to target her again.

Long before she was an activist, Malala Yousafzai was a model student. By the time she was 21⁄2, she was sitting in class with 10-year-olds, according to a close family friend and teacher at the school founded by Malala’s father. The little girl with the huge hazel eyes didn’t say much, but “she could follow, and she never got bored,” says the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear that she too might become a Taliban target. Malala loved the school, a rundown concrete-block building with a large rooftop terrace open to views of the snowcapped mountains that surround the Swat Valley. As she grew older, she was always first in her class. “She was an ordinary girl with extraordinary abilities,” says the teacher, “but she never had a feeling of being special.”

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Malala spent most of her pocket money on books, says the teacher. She carried a Harry Potter schoolbag and read a biography of Benazir Bhutto as well as one of Barack Obama’s books. One of her favorite books was Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and she often quoted the well-known line about how the universe conspires to help when you want something.

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Family friends attribute Malala’s precociousness to her father, a social activist who believes that the education of girls is vital to Pakistan’s future. Ziauddin Yousafzai opened Khushal School and College 17 years ago with the aim of building a new generation of female leaders. Samar Minallah Khan, a documentary filmmaker who got to know the Yousafzais in 2010 when she made a film about the school, was astounded by the ambition and character of the girls she met. “Each and every girl in that school is a Malala,” says Khan, “and the credit goes to her father and the teachers and the principal.”

In September 2008, as the Pakistani Taliban gained a significant foothold in Swat and started enforcing their strict interpretations of Islamic law, Yousafzai took Malala to the provincial capital of Peshawar for an event at the city’s press club. There, in front of the national press, the 11-year-old gave a speech titled “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education?” The speech was well received, but many worried that confronting the Taliban so brazenly might put Malala in danger. “People said to me, ‘How can you let her do this?’” Yousafzai told a reporter at the time. “We needed to stand up,” he reasoned.

Some believe that Malala was simply not old enough to make what were essentially life-or-death decisions. “I think Zia was imposing his own thoughts about girls’ education on her,” says Dr. Mohammad Ayub, a psychiatrist from Swat who manages the hospital where Malala was taken immediately after the shooting. Malala, he says, “was like a suicide bomber, brainwashed into putting herself in danger. Child prostitutes, child soldiers, child laborers and child heroes — they are all exploited children, in my opinion, and it shouldn’t be allowed.” People who know Malala personally, however, insist that she knew what she was doing. “No one on this earth can dictate to Malala,” says Khan.

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In late 2008, the BBC Urdu service proposed to Yousafzai that one of his students blog anonymously about what it was like going to school under Taliban rule. Malala volunteered to do it herself. She dived into the new project with dark humor. “On my way from school to home I heard a man saying, ‘I will kill you,’” she wrote on Jan. 3, 2009. “I hastened my pace … to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”

Even though her diary entries were anonymous, Malala apparently had few qualms about speaking openly to a national audience. On the evening of Feb. 18, 2009, she was attending an anti-Taliban protest with her father in Swat’s capital, Mingora, where she spied broadcaster Hamid Mir, who was in town reporting. She ran up to him and asked to be on his show. Intrigued, he put her on. “All I want is an education,” she told Mir and his audience. “And I am afraid of no one.”

By the time the Taliban were driven from Swat seven months later, Malala had become a visible advocate for girls’ education. She campaigned to raise government spending on schools (at the moment it’s a miserable 2% of GDP, compared with the U.S. average expenditure of about 5.4%) and encouraged families to break with tribal tradition and allow their daughters to attend classes. A number of schools were renamed in her honor. She met with the late Richard Holbrooke, then the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, to plead for assistance for Pakistani schools.

But in December 2009, Malala, whose identity as the BBC blogger had been something of an open secret for several months, was publicly identified by her father, who was proud of her accomplishments. The leader of the Swat Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah, decided it was time to silence Malala and sent two men to kill her. “We did not want to kill her, as we knew it would cause us a bad name in the media,” Sirajuddin Ahmad, a senior commander and spokesman for the Swat Taliban, told TIME. “But there was no other option.”

When the converted truck that serves as the Khushal school bus came to a stop on Oct. 9 this year, few of the 14 girls and three teachers crammed onto the two long benches inside even noticed. They were too busy chatting about the exams they had just completed. Shazia Ramzan, a 13-year-old sitting next to Malala near the open back of the truck, was the first to see the gunman. “Which one is Malala?” he barked. Terrified, the girls fell silent. “I think we must have looked at her,” admits Shazia. “We didn’t say anything, but we must have looked, because then he shot her.” Shazia screamed when she saw Malala slump forward. The gunman turned and shot Shazia and another girl, neither fatally. The gunman fled.

The bullet that hit Malala, according to doctors who are treating her, pierced the skin just behind her left eye, traveled along the exterior of her skull, nicked her jawbone, went through her neck and lodged in the muscle just above her left shoulder blade. Surgeons in Pakistan removed a section of her skull during an operation on Oct. 10 and embedded it in the flesh of her abdomen; as long as it’s inside her body, it will likely remain viable until her doctors decide it is time to take off the titanium plate and patch her skull back together. She will probably face several more months of rehabilitation. Doctors treating her at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham do not expect her to suffer permanent brain damage.

Besides her call to Ayesha Mir, she is showing other small but telling signs of wanting to resume her role as an activist. The first pictures taken of her after the shooting showed a powerless victim of violence: on her back, swollen, possibly dying. That didn’t happen again. For subsequent photos released after her surgery, friends say, she insisted that she be photographed with a book in hand and her headscarf carefully draped to hide any signs of damage — both as a nod to tradition and so that supporters would know that her priorities had not changed.

Even as she quietly recovers, her story has lit a fire. Queen Elizabeth Hospital has been flooded with gifts and cards from all over the world and donations now totaling $13,700 for Malala and her family. Meanwhile, a group of graduate students in the U.S. has teamed up with a Yousafzai family friend to raise almost $50,000. In the days immediately following the shooting, several charities and NGOs received boosts in donations directed toward girls’ education in Pakistan. And on Dec. 10, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari announced the establishment of a $10 million education fund in Malala’s name.

Malala also now has numerous powerful supporters, including a group of well-connected people like Megan Smith, a vice president at Google, and Mark Kelly, an astronaut and the husband of former Congresswoman and shooting survivor Gabby Giffords, who have helped established the Malala Fund, which will offer grants to organizations and individuals working in education. The plan is for Malala, when she’s better, to sit on the board along with her father and make decisions about who should receive the grants.

And her father has an important new job: on Dec. 9, Gordon Brown announced that Ziauddin would be his special adviser on global education.

But as Malala knows perhaps better than anyone else, the forces aligned against her are intimidating and entrenched. Although she has said through her father that she is determined to return to Swat, it’s quite possible that she will be forced to remain in England, where she has security and an unfettered opportunity to study. (The Pakistani government has promised to cover the cost of her education should she stay in the U.K.) That will only allow her critics — and there are many, including people who believe the shooting was staged or even invented — to insist that she and her family have forsaken the country they claim to care so much about.

In the face of such pressure, and after all she has been through, it would be understandable if Malala essentially retired at age 15. She may decide that she’s already done enough. Perhaps, in spite of the threats that are still directed at her, she will go back to Mingora to finish her education and raise a family, as is traditional for most girls and women in the region. There, her family’s home, a small gated compound shaded by a massive orange tree heavy with unplucked fruit, is watched over by family friends. Her tiny ninth-grade classroom on the second floor of the school is crammed with 31 students — and has one empty desk. Her best friend, Moniba, used a white correction pen to inscribe Malala in girlish cursive onto the desk’s battered wooden armrest. “This is Malala’s desk,” says Moniba, who sits at the adjacent seat. “It will stay empty until she comes back.”

If she doesn’t, all it takes is a quick scan of the school’s crowded classrooms to understand that there are 400 Malalas prepared to take her place. Not all of them will be as bold or articulate as Malala, perhaps. But each one has returned to Khushal with the full knowledge that Malala’s attackers are still at large. These girls have overcome fear to go to school. At the very least, they will fight for the right of their daughters, and their daughters’ daughters, to do the same. Malala’s classmates were already brave. She has made them, and girls all over the world, braver still. — with reporting by megan gibson and sonia van gilder cooke/london and mehboob ali/mingoran

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