Malala Yousafzai wins Europe’s Sakharov Award: endangered empowering leadership

The honors keep piling up. Malala Yousafzai has won Europe’s Sakharov Award for her human rights work. And tomorrow, we may hear she has won a Nobel Peace Prize. What does this mean for this highly visible 16 year old global activist?

Yousafzai at Harvard in September, 2013. AP Photo/Jessica Rinaldi, File

Yousafzai at Harvard in September, 2013. AP Photo/Jessica Rinaldi

A profile notes, “European lawmakers awarded their top human rights prize, [a 50,000-euro ($65,000) award,] to Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who last year survived a Taliban assassination attempt because of her outspoken support for girls’ education. Previous winners include Nobel Peace Prize laureates Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. The award came one day ahead of the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, for which Malala also is a contender.

“The European Parliament acknowledges the incredible strength of this young woman,” said Martin Schulz, the president of the EU legislature. “Malala bravely stands for the right of all children to be granted a fair education. This right for girls is far too commonly neglected.”

But what gives her more influence may also make her a bigger target. This is often the case for girls and women standing up to the Taliban, because it is the willingness of female citizens to accept a lesser, non-public role that supports Muslim fundamentalism’s core practices of exclusive leadership.

It is dangerous to simply tell the truth about their lives, as Malala did for the BBC (under a pseudonym at first), when she was 11. The rules of followership for women and girls are rigidly enforced, by laws that justify imprisonment, violence, rape and death for anything that might be seen as rebellion, and it’s very easy to rebel. Drive, let the headscarf slip, listen to the wrong music, get an education, refuse to obey a father’s order to marry, or leave an abusive husband — you get the idea.

According to Agence France-Presse, Taliban spokesperson, Shahidullah Shahid, said this week, “She is not a brave girl and has no courage. We will target her again and attack whenever we have a chance.”

LA Times op-ed writer, Paul Whitefield, wrote: “these are not idle threats. The Taliban means what it says. Malala’s high profile, her refusal to back down in the face of such threats, could very well get her killed. In some ways, there are echoes in Malala’s story of author Salman Rushdie’s. He spent years living under a death threat from Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over his book, “The Satanic Verses.” It was difficult for Rushdie, and he’s an adult. How hard must it be for a teenage girl to be living under such a cloud?”

She is clearly walking in the revolutionary, influential and risky footsteps of Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. The dangers are as great as the possible gains.

Yousafzai is clear; she will not back down in the face of threats. At Harvard last week, receiving the Gomes Humanitarian Award, she said, ““The solution is one, and it is simple. It is education, education, education,” she said. “No one can defeat us. We can’t be afraid of anyone.”

If Yousafzai wins the Nobel Peace Prize tomorrow, the West is making it very clear that Taliban beliefs about the role of women in society are a minority. That will no doubt, sting doubly, as she rises to a role that eclipses theirs in global leadership. But whether it will protect her or make her a bigger target is probably not the biggest question, at least for me.

In terms of leadership and followership, the most important question she models is this: Who else among us will stand with her to transform the world?


  1. […] activists risking their lives, not just economic and social status.  Malala Yousafzai has become an international leader for universal education but at great cost. Most resistance means martyrdom or […]


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