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At 17, campaigner Malala, the schoolgirl the Taliban could not silence, becomes youngest Nobel peace prize recipient

Malala Yousafzai once wrote: “We realise the importance of our voices only when we are silenced. I was shot on a Tuesday at lunchtime, onebullet, one gunshot heard around the world.”

Two years and a day after her attempted assassination by Taliban gunmen, that shot continued to reverberate with the Nobel committee’s announcement that the 17-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl is to share the peace prize, its youngest recipient ever.

When the news broke, Malala was in a chemistry class at Edgbaston high school for girls, Birmingham, far away from the mountain-fringed city of Mingora in the picturesque Swat valley where she was born, and where she began her outspoken campaign for the right to education, and where she almost died on 9 October 2012.

Malala – a name now instantly recognisable worldwide – shares the 8m kronor (£690,000) prize with Kailash Satyarthi, 60, an Indian child rights campaigner, as both are lauded for their “struggle against the suppression of children and young people”.

Malala’s campaign, noted the Nobel committee, has been carried out “under the most dangerous circumstances”, and it places her alongside previous recipients Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi.

She waited until school had finished before giving her reaction, saying a teacher had told her the news in chemistry, and she had celebrated by going on to a physics class, and then English.

The award, she said, “is for all those children who are voiceless and whose voices need to be heard”.

She saw it as motivation to continue her campaign for equal rights to education. “I felt more powerful and more courageous because this award is not just a piece of metal or a medal you wear or an award you keep in your room. This is encouragement for me to go forward.”

On the day she was shot in Pakistan she was in the middle of her school exams, “squashed between friends and teachers on the benches of the open-back truck used as a school bus”.

The school, Khushal public school, was founded by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who, according to a profile in Vanity Fair, “encouraged Malala to speak freely and learn everything she could”. By then, though only 15, she was an outspoken critic of the tactics of the Taliban, who overran the city in 2009, in denying education to girls.

Since the age of 11 she had been championing girls’ education in Pakistan, speaking out in TV interviews and the subject of a documentary in 2009. Under the auspices of her father, also outspoken on education,she wrote a diary about life under Taliban rule which ran on BBC Urdu between January and March 2009.

Using the pseudonym Gul Makai, the name of a heroine from a Pashtun folk tale, she passionately expressed her desire to remain in education and documented her fear and those of her friends of being targeted by militants, and how they attended school in plain clothes rather than their uniforms to escape attention. In 2011 she was nominated for the international children’s peace prize by the KidsRights Foundation.

She was one of the “clever girls”, dreaming of becoming a doctor, decorating her hands with henna for holidays and weddings not with flowers or butterflies, but with calculus and chemical formulae. Then, on 9 October 2012, a masked Taliban gunman boarded her school vehicle, asked for her by name, pointed a Colt .45 at her and shot at point-blank range. A bullet grazed her brain, travelling from above the back of her left eye, down the side of her jaw and into her neck.

A couple more inches, doctors said, and her injuries would have been fatal. Two classmates were also shot, and survived. Last month 10 Taliban fighters who tried to kill her were arrested, the Pakistan army said.

Initially treated by neurosurgeons at a Pakistani military hospital, Malala was flown to Britain for treatment at Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, the city that has adopted her and her family, and where she has had several more operations.

She has been dismissive of the physical scars, telling her mother: “It doesn’t matter if I can’t smile or blink properly. I’m still me, Malala. The important thing is God has given me my life.”

If Malala had been an outspoken advocate for equal education before the attack, she became an international force after it.

She has continued to campaign, meeting Barack Obama, being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people and last year publishing the memoir I am Malala.

Addressing the UN on her 16th birthday, she said: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” Her awards include the European parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of thought and last year the UN made 12 July – her birthday – Malala Day, celebrating the campaign for a child’s right to receive an education.

On Friday Obama, himself a peace prize laureate, said he was awestruck by Malala’s courage as he hailed her Nobel win. The US president said: “Michelle and I were proud to welcome this remarkable young woman to the Oval Office last year. We were awe-struck by her courage and filled with hope knowing this is only the beginning of her extraordinary efforts to make the world a better place.”

Former prime minister Gordon Brown, who has campaigned with Malala on education issues since leaving office, said of the Nobel honour: “Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi are the world’s greatest children’s champions.”

And Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, announced that Malala will be awarded honorary Canadian citizenship when she travels to Ottawa on 22 October.

But reaction in Pakistan was mixed. Prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said she was the “pride” of the country. “Her achievement is unparallelled and unequalled. Girls and boys of the world should take the lead from her struggle and commitment”.

Ahmed Shah, a friend of Malala’s family, said: “This is a great prize and big news for us. This minor but courageous girl has created a positive identity of Pakistan. We as Pakistanis and especially as residents of the Swat valley are thankful to Malala.”

But she has often been accused by some in her home region of being a British or American agent, or, worse, viewed as a deserving Taliban target. Liaquat Baloch, a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, a rightwing religious-political party, said: “Malala is a Pakistani student and she is getting a lot of support and patronage abroad.

“ On the surface this is not a bad thing and we welcome this, and there is no objection to the award, but the attack on Malala and then her support in the West creates a lot of suspicions.” In the past Malala has expressed her hope that she is not thought of “as the girl who was shot by the Taliban but the girl who fought for education”.

She has now abandoned her ambition to become a doctor, instead deciding to become “a politician, a good politician”. With what she has achieved, aged just 17, few would bet against her achieving her dream.