Malala Yousafzai's New Mission: Can She Still Inspire as an Adult?

Malala at library
Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate, at Birmingham Library on December 23, 2016. Robin Hammond/NOOR for Newsweek

As Malala Yousafzai discusses college applications and her final high school exams, her normally self-confident way of speaking begins to waver. The word like enters her speech, and she starts to laugh nervously. At the age of 19, Yousafzai has survived an assassination attempt, won the Nobel Peace Prize and addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. She is one of the most famous teenagers in the world, but right now she's as anxious about her future as any college applicant.

In December, she had an interview with professors at Lady Margaret Hall, the first Oxford University college to educate women. It was, Yousafzai says, "the hardest interview of my life. I just get scared when I think of the interview. I don't want to think back." Yousafzai is hoping to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford—the degree and university of choice for many of Britain's leading politicians. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan who was assassinated in 2007, also studied PPE at Lady Margaret Hall. (Bhutto is one of Yousafzai's heroes; when she spoke at the U.N. in 2013, she wore one of the late prime minister's shawls.)

Yousafzai's display of nerves when discussing her Oxford interview is refreshing, especially for a teenager whose life has been anything but normal. More than four years ago, a Taliban militant approached Yousafzai's school bus in Pakistan's Swat Valley. His hands shaking, the gunman asked which of the girls on board was Yousafzai. As her friends turned to look at her, the militant shot her in the head. Yousafzai, then 15, had been an outspoken critic of the Taliban in northern Pakistan, particularly of the group's crackdown on the education of women and girls.

Although she was already relatively well-known, the assassination attempt made Yousafzai a global celebrity. Millions of people waited for news of her condition, with many convinced that she wouldn't survive. But Yousafzai was lucky. The bullet traveled down the length of her face and into her shoulder, giving doctors—first in Pakistan and then in Birmingham, England—the chance to save her life. As she recovered, and began to make public statements, it became clear she was not going to retreat; she would continue her work as an advocate for the education of girls and women. "When I survived the attack and when I woke up in the hospital, my mind was very, very clear, that this life is for a cause," she says. "This is a second life, and it is given to me for something greater than what I was before."

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Yousafzai has achieved a lot in that second life: She's established a fund that has given away $8.4 million since its founding in 2013, and she's won the Nobel and published an award-winning memoir. For women across the world, she has also become a feminist icon. "There was a time when women activists asked men to stand up for their rights," she told the U.N. General Assembly on her 16th birthday, which the organization named Malala Day. "But this time, we will do it by ourselves." Three years later, however, Yousafzai has to figure out something else for herself: how best to transition from the child star of global humanitarianism to a full-time activist or politician.

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai photographed by Robin Hammond for the front cover of Newsweek International's special issue for Davos 2017. Newsweek

Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent for The Sunday Times of London and co-author of I Am Malala , Yousafzai's memoir, says that despite her young friend's many awards and widespread fame, she has not peaked early. "I have never met anybody that's so eloquent, so passionate and determined to make a difference," says Lamb. "It wouldn't surprise me if she ended up prime minister of Pakistan or secretary-general of the U.N." For now, Lamb says, Yousafzai is determined to get the best possible education for herself, seeing university as "a tool to help her look at different issues, learn how to make a difference in countries and how to get things done."

Yousafzai's university years will give her time to figure out what she wants to do next. "These different ideas and thoughts come to my mind," she says when we meet at the Birmingham Public Library in late December. "Like, once I wanted to become a lawyer, a doctor, a mechanic fixing cars, an artist. And sometimes, like, I wanted to be a politician and become the prime minister of Pakistan."

Yousafzai has, several other times, made it clear that she has political ambitions. In October, she told delegates to a women's issues conference in the United Arab Emirates that she wanted to be prime minister of Pakistan. A year earlier, Yousafzai had told The Guardian, "As our politicians are doing nothing for us, nothing for peace, nothing for education, I want to become prime minister of my country." It's hard to tell whether her aspirations are naive—governing is rarely for the pure, and Bhutto herself faced allegations of corruption—or savvy. She has spent more time with world leaders and politicians than nearly any other 19-year-old, and she may have concluded that being an activist, even a world-famous one, isn't enough to really make a difference in the world. For that, you need real power.

And back home in South Asia, many have criticized how Western media outlets and institutions have conferred a kind of celebrity status on Yousafzai. Her "importance lies in her ability to be ordinary and still live an ethical and inspirational life," says Indian author Tabish Khair, who has written about Yousafzai. "To make her into an idol is to deny this, reduce it. Moreover, it is also to negate so many other Malalas who are fighting out there—many in very ordinary ways, like by quietly covering their heads and going to school despite frowning elders. Perhaps if Malala can go on and achieve something that is not seen as just an idolizing benediction by the West—which, unfortunately, the Nobel was widely perceived to be in the non-West—it would mean much more for such ordinary heroines."

The risk of her fame overshadowing her cause is something Yousafzai has acknowledged many times. "Malala Day is not my day," she told the U.N. General Assembly in 2013. "Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights." A year later, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, she reminded the world, "I tell my story not because it is unique but because it is not. It is the story of many girls."

Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, the joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, stands with her father Ziauddin after speaking at Birmingham Library in Birmingham, England on October 10, 2014. Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for advocating girls' right to education. Darren Staples/Reuters

Yousafzai insists to me that she's not a celebrity, but that's wishful thinking. She's maybe not that kind of celebrity, but she's a global A-lister whether she wants to be or not. And that fame has proved useful, bringing her influence and resources. In 2013, Yousafzai and her father, Ziauddin, set up the Malala Fund, an organization that invests in girls' education worldwide and lobbies at local, national and international levels to improve girls' access to schooling. In Nigeria, the fund has provided counseling and full high school scholarships to girls who escaped Boko Haram after being kidnapped by the Islamist militant group. In Lebanon, it has opened a school for Syrian refugees, and in Jordan, it has financed educational programs in two refugee camps.

In December, the fund's board of directors met to decide on how to allocate a new slew of grants as part of an initiative called the Gulmakai Network. The name is a nod to the pseudonym 11-year-old Yousafzai used when writing a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban. The network has begun to invest in education advocacy programs run by local people—the kind Yousafzai and her father led when they lived in Pakistan—and will disburse up to $10 million a year over the next decade. The project marks a significant expansion of the Malala Fund's work.

Yousafzai was present for the December meeting and helped allocate the grants, but she is not involved with the day-to-day running of the fund. She's focusing on school right now, she says, rather than helming a charitable organization. Once she finishes college, however, the fund would essentially be hers to control, if she wants to do that. And although the fund is in its infancy, it is undeniably powerful. If Yousafzai headed it, she would have at her disposal tens of millions of dollars to spend on causes that she—and her board of directors—saw fit to support.

Malala Yousafzai, 18, kicks a ball while playing soccer with Syrian refugee children during her visit to Azraq refugee camp in Jordan on July 13, 2015. Rich countries should spend less on weapons in the Syria conflict and more on education, Yousafzai said, calling world leaders "stingy" as she visited a camp for refugees. Muhammed Muheisen/AP

It is an option few, if any, college students will have waiting for them when they graduate. Yousafzai is grateful for that opportunity—but she is occasionally saddened by what she has lost by being Malala, the girl who survived the Taliban. "Now, when I am 19 years old, I look back and I wonder, like, Where was my youth, where was my childhood?" she says. "At [my age], many children would not have seen their schools being banned, many children would not have seen terrorists in their life, many children would not have experienced campaigning for serious issues and meeting world leaders."

Though her school friends know about her past, Yousafzai says she does not discuss it with them. Nor does she talk about her activism and the campaigns her fund is leading. "I try not to be too serious with my friends," she says. "You want to be normal."

Yousafzai mentions the word normal more than 20 times during our conversation. She repeatedly insists that, despite everything she's done, she remains ordinary. When she speaks about herself as an activist or as someone famous, she tends to slip into the third person, as though the Malala who meets with heads of state is a different person. Of the initial difficulties she faced in making friends at her school, she says, "In the beginning, it was hard because maybe some of the girls were scared...should they talk to Malala, should they not, and even if they want to talk to Malala, how should they talk and what kind of person is she."

It took months before Yousafzai—who describes herself as "very shy"—was able to make friends at her new school. Even now, she is wary of anything that could disrupt her classmates' perceptions of her or remind them that she is different. When she goes out shopping with her friends, Yousafzai says, she find interruptions from passers-by embarrassing. "When, like, people come and they ask for pictures in front of your friends, you just feel a bit awkward," she says. "Sometimes you don't want to remind yourself of fame and everything else outside."

Malala Yousafzai, photographed by Robin Hammond, at Birmingham Library on December 23, 2016. Robin Hammond/Noor for Newsweek

At college, Yousafzai will have to make new friends, and for the first time in her life she'll be without the security her family provides. Whichever college she attends—Yousafzai has also applied to the London School of Economics and Durham and Warwick universities—she will, like millions of students worldwide, live away from home for the first time.

Yousafzai says she is excited by that prospect, though her family is less thrilled. When she and her father visited California's Stanford University, Yousafzai says her father asked the person showing them around if there were family accommodations on campus because he intended to move to Stanford if his daughter went there. The answer, unfortunately for Ziauddin, was no. And in that moment, his daughter took a further step toward a promising adulthood that could yet outshine her remarkable childhood.