CRAWFORD OPINION | With Malala, the Nobel committee missed its moment
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The Nobel Peace Prize committee last week awarded its annual prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a Hague-based agency that has been enlisted to destroy Syria's chemical stockpiles.
It is a practical organization doing tangible things in the promotion of peace, and is to be commended.
It is not, however, Malala Yousafzai. The 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban on her Swat Valley school bus for her outspoken life on behalf of education for girls is promoting her book, "I Am Malala," and on Friday met with President Barack Obama and his family at the White House.
Yousafzai was the popular choice, and with good reason. She is the youngest person ever to be considered for the award.
In her home country, jealousy over her celebrity has led to claims that she is a "pawn of the Western media," and cries of "what has she done?"
I'll tell you what she's done.
She grew up with a mother of great intelligence, but who cannot read or write. Her father writes poems to her, even if she cannot read them. She had the good fortune to be born to parents who celebrated her arrival, regardless of her sex.
"I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain," she writes in the introduction to her book, "I Am Malala."
Her father founded the school she attended. She grew up in it.
"My father tells me even before I could talk I would toddle into classes and talk as if I were a teacher," she wrote.
For her, for a long time, just going to school every day constituted an act of courage. Even when the Taliban rose to power in Afghanistan, and began to close schools and forbid girls to receive an education, she refused to accept it. When the Taliban moved into her own village, she resisted. She and her friends hid their school bags and books in their shawls. School was her great joy.
"When we decorated our hands with henna for holidays and weddings, we drew calculus and chemical formulae instead of flowers and butterflies," she wrote.
The day the Taliban ordered her own school closed, she wept. It was conducting night bombings of other school buildings, but her greatest desire still was to attend school every day.
What has she done? At 11 years old, she was on Pakistani television, fighting for her right to go to school. On one program with a Taliban leader, she said, "How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to an education." The Taliban leader, alas, did not respond. His comments were recorded.
By the end of 2008, 400 schools had been destroyed by the Taliban. The day her school closed, she woke up to documentary cameras in her bedroom. The resulting film, from The New York Times, would further enhance her international celebrity.
"(They) could take our pens and books," she wrote. "But they couldn't stop our minds from thinking."
She became more well-known. Her father, she wrote, "started to sleep at one of his friend's houses to protect us in case the Taliban came for him. He couldn't bear the thought of being killed in front of us."
Then Malala began to keep a diary for the BBC. She wrote of her daily experiences, under the pen name Gul Makai.
"I began to see that the pen and the words that come from it can be much more powerful than machine guns, tanks or helicopters," she wrote. ". . . I told the documentary makers, 'They cannot stop me. I will get my education if it's at home, school or somewhere else.' . . . Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human."
It's difficult, in this country, to understand the hunger for education that exists in other parts of the world. It's easy to take it for granted when your schools want to spend millions of dollars on the latest gadgetry. So many kids today take their daily trek to class as a form of drudgery.
That's why Malala's story is so important.
What has she done? She was just riding a bus to school on October 9, 2012, after her school had reopened, when the bus stopped and two men boarded. Her words, from her book:
"The man was wearing a peaked cap and had a handkerchief over his nose and mouth as if he had flu," she wrote. "He looked like a college student. Then he swung himself onto the tailboard at the back and leaned in right over us.
"'Who is Malala?' he demanded
"No one said anything but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered.
"That's when he lifted up a black pistol. I later learned it was a Colt 45. Some of the girls screamed. (Her friend) Moniba tells me I squeezed her hand.
"My friends say he fired three shots, one after another. The first went through my left eye socket and out under my left shoulder. I slumped forward onto Moniba, blood coming from my left ear, so the other two bullets hit girls next to me.
She lived. Through brain surgery. Through a medically-induced coma. Through the care of surgeons and nurses in England, where she was transported when her situation in Pakistan became dire.
The world responded to her plight. Heads of state expressed outrage.
What has she done? Let anyone who has done as much ask the question.
She woke up in the hospital in Birmingham, England, her parents still more than a week from arriving, confused, trying to get her bearings. She scrawled on a piece of paper, "What happened to me?"
Here's why the Nobel committee got it wrong. It may yet award her a Peace prize after years of work. But it will have missed a chance to recognize a young woman, a child, really, who has earned the acclaim, and who stands as an example not only of courage and intelligence, but an unabashed spokesperson for those things.
Maybe it is because I have a daughter roughly her age, but there are not many contemporaries for young people to look up to today.
In this country there are television stars and pop singers and whoever happens to be on the MTV Music Awards this year.
Few young people in the public eye are talking about education with such passion, or in any way engaging in the struggles of the world, and certainly none with the magnitude of her story. This young girl not only already has rallied others to her cause, but will continue to do so.
Yes, she had a father who saw something in her early and allowed her to speak her mind, infused her with his own strong beliefs about education, and encouraged her to speak fearlessly. Yes, she has used her opportunities in the Western media to speak for those causes. Since when are people who do that criticized?
Her candidacy stirred up interest in her story, and her new book should be required reading for young people, and their parents.
Her advocacy for peaceful solutions amid terrible violence deserved to be honored now, not later. It would have been a powerful statement in this moment. It would have acknowledged for a generation of young people that the time for making a difference doesn't have to wait. She's an important voice for women, yes, but why not honor her while she is an important voice for youth, as well? Timing matters.
When Malala met President Obama, she not only thanked him for the honor, but spoke truth to power. She said that drone strikes kill innocent people. She urged him to find another way.
She doesn't need a peace prize to do her work. Her following on social media and among those captivated by her story transcends the notoriety of any prize.
When told she did not win, Taliban leaders were pleased.
"We are delighted that she didn't get it. She did nothing big so it's good that she didn't get it," spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told the Agence France-Presse in a phone call after the winner was announced Friday.
In an earlier interview, he said, "She is not a brave girl and has no courage. We will target her again and attack whenever we have a chance."
In July, Malala spoke to the United Nations Youth Assembly. Wearing a pink headscarf that had belonged to one of her heroes, murdered politician Benazir Bhutto, her nation's first female prime minister, she told the gathering, "The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born."
She ended her speech with the words: "One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education First."
The Nobel committee missed its moment on this one, a rare chance to reward someone in the exact moment it could do the most good. Truthfully, she didn't need the Nobel Peace Prize. But the Nobel Peace Prize needed her.
Fortunately for all involved, you don't need a prize to advocate peace. Or to live it.
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