Malala Yousufzai was famous before the attempt on her life, but has since become a global icon in the cause of universal education, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. And after her speech to the United Nations on Friday, she is possibly the most instantly recognisable Pakistani in the world. Few teenagers would expect to address the United Nations as a sixteenth-birthday present, but she carried off her 17-minute speech with passion, aplomb and dignity. It was interrupted by applause at several points and ended to a standing ovation. On the evidence of this speech alone, Malala Yousufzai may become a powerful orator, and a voice that millions will attend to. Whether governments and individuals will heed the message in her words is quite another matter.
Feted she may be by the UN, but the perception of Malala Yousufzai in her own land is altogether more ambivalent. While there are many who salute her for her courage, there are also quite a few others who see her and her family as western stooges, tools of the CIA and forces of ‘secularism’. The leader of a prominent religious party is on record as doubting that she was ever injured at all, saying the entire episode was some sort of staged drama. Political reaction from the mainstream has been muted. The president has sent his felicitations, but endorsement or praise for Malala by any other leading political figure is notable by its absence. The chances of Malala winning a Nobel Peace Prize have almost certainly increased as a result of her UN speech. And she will be the youngest person ever to receive it if she does. For those struggling for the cause of universal education for every child, boy and girl – there are 57 million out of school globally – she has become the standard-bearer with potentially a lifetime at the front of the battle ahead of her. Malala Yousufzai stood up proud to be a Muslim and a Pakistani, and Pakistan should be proud that she is a daughter of the land. Happy birthday Malala, and many happy returns.