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Malala Yousafzai

Most 14-year-old girls are eager, energetic and full of big ideas — and bigger questions. The way that age-appropriate awareness of the world and discerning of their place in it can manifest in many ways: athletes hit their stride; students become scholars of a particular subject; fashion experts develop. For Malala Yousafzai, coming of age has brought her international acclaim while nearly ending her life.

Yousafzai lives in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where the Taliban has established a presence of intimidation and oppression. She has been an outspoken critic of the Taliban since she was 11, blogging for the BBC about her desire for peace in the region and throughout Pakistan, as well as becoming a vocal champion of girls’ education — something the Taliban opposes with brutal violence. For her courage, Yousafzai was awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize and was the inaugural winner of Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize.

Her courage has cost her dearly, though. Last week, on her way home from school on a bus with her classmates, Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck by Talibani gunmen. She is now in the United Kingdom and is expected to recover. The Taliban has vowed to target her again. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a Taliban spokesman, called her outspoken commitment to education and peace an “obscenity,” condemning her for “openly propagating” Western culture.

Ehsan said of the attack, “Let this be a lesson.” Indeed. Let it be a lesson of the brutality with which the Taliban operates in its quest for control at the expense of basic human rights. Let it demonstrate that one young girl’s precocious bravery and commitment to those rights — and to a brighter future for herself, her community and her country — is so threatening to the Taliban that they attempted to silence her through murder, and likely will again. Let it show that such threats were not enough to silence Yousafzai: She had long been aware that she was targeted — and had fled the Swat Valley with her family — but continued to attend school and encourage others to.

Yousafzai is a remarkable person by any standard, and all the more so for speaking truth to so threatening a power as the Taliban. She knew the stakes, but refused to be cowed. Her family steadfastly supported her efforts and that is a testament to and source of her strength. And now her country is rallying around her cause, with demonstrations arising throughout Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari called her “a symbol of all that is good in us.”

She is, and the attack she is now recovering from is a symbol of the worst sort of violence: that which targets someone in a position of diminished power attempting to stand for what is right. That such a young person committed herself to that goal in any context — on behalf of young people throughout Pakistan — should be celebrated. That Malala Yousafzai risked her life in doing so is nothing short of heroic.

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