The Taliban's most fearsome enemy in Pakistan isn't U.S. drones or the military's tanks: It's a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Malala Yousafzai's tool of defiance? Her own bravery in speaking out for the simple idea that girls should have access to the same education as boys. That shouldn't be a radical notion in 2012, but even as Pakistan bristles with roughly 100 nuclear warheads, up to 60 percent of women are still illiterate and two out of every five girls fail to finish primary school. Challenging the tyranny of those low expectations can get you killed in today's Pakistan.
In October, as Malala headed home after an exam, a Taliban gunman stopped her school bus and announced that she must be punished for insulting "the soldiers of Allah." Then he shot her in the head.
Malala, who was grievously wounded but miraculously survived, has fit a lifetime of activism into her few short years. When Islamist militants overran Malala's native Swat Valley in 2009, banning girls' education, she penned an anonymous blog for the BBC about the daily horrors of life under Taliban rule. "My five-year-old brother was playing on the lawn. When my father asked him what he was playing, he replied 'I am making a grave,'" she wrote in one entry. The journal offered a ground-level view of the creeping totalitarianism in Pakistan -- and some soon compared it to Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, but set in modern-day Swat Valley.
Armed only with her convictions and the firm support of her father, who runs a private girls' school, Malala refused to be silenced. She became a celebrity in Pakistan through her outspoken interviews, chaired a "child assembly" that aimed to expand opportunities for youth in the Swat Valley, and pleaded with late U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke to help halt the Talibanization of her country. "I shall raise my voice," she said last year. "If I didn't do it, who would?"
It's a lesson in courage that is inspiring others to stand up to the forces of barbarism in their midst. Too bad it took a tragedy to do it.