Malala Yousafzai captivates World Bank audience in address in Washington

If she’d had the chance before the bullet was fired, she would have delivered a clear message to the Pakistani Taliban extremist who shot her in the head a year ago: “You can shoot me, but listen to me first. I want education for your sons and daughters. Now I have spoken, so do whatever you want.”

That was what Malala Yousafzai told a spellbound World Bank audience Friday.

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The 16-year-old became an international celebrity after the October 2012 attempt on her life. Her face is still partly paralyzed from the shooting.

The Taliban movement, which had banned girls’ education in her region of Pakistan, sought to punish and silence her activism on behalf of educating women and girls there.

Instead, the intrepid activist has spent the months since her recovery traveling, speaking and being showered with praise. This week, she appeared at Harvard University and on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” won a prestigious European human rights award, and narrowly missed being honored Friday with a Nobel Peace Prize, which went to a group that works to ban chemical weapons.

On Friday, in an hour-long exchange with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Yousafzai spoke with poise, passion and flashes of wry humor as she repeatedly urged her listeners — including about 50 female students from area private schools — to stand up for girls’ education and rights.

“I am proud to be a girl, and I know that girls can change the world,” she said to a burst of applause from hundreds of bank employees and guests in the bank’s soaring atrium. “If a terrorist can change someone’s mind and convince them to become a suicide bomber, we can also change their minds and tell them education is the only way to bring humanity and peace.”

Dressed in a black head scarf and brightly colored traditional Pakistani dress, Yousafzai bantered frequently with Kim, who seemed both awestruck and charmed. Kim, a medical doctor, asked her why she had decided to become a politician. She answered in an instant, to more applause.

“Because a doctor can only help someone who has been shot.” she said. “If I become a politician, I can help make a tomorrow where there are no more cases of people being shot.”

Yousafzai’s appearance was especially inspiring to the students in the audience, most of whom are active in a volunteer program called Girl Up, which works through the United Nations to promote opportunities and leadership development for girls around the world.

“We are so used to having many privileges and opportunities. I never thought I would have to risk my neck just to go to class,” said Ingrid Braun, 16, of the Madeira School in McLean, where students sent a group get-well card to Yousafzai while she was hospitalized. “I can’t imagine being as brave as she is.”

“The Taliban tried to kill her, but still she is here, not hiding,” marveled Elizabeth Macrides, 17, a student at Georgetown Visitation School in the District.

Yousafzai is visiting the United States partly to promote her new memoir, “I Am Malala.” This week she received fresh death threats from the Pakistani Taliban, who also vowed to attack any store that sells her book. The bank event was held under heavy security, and sniffer dogs checked the stage repeatedly.

She was scheduled to speak Friday night at Sidwell Friends School in an event sponsored by Politics & Prose bookstore.

Yousafzai described her happy childhood in Pakistan’s bucolic Swat Valley and spoke of how her father — who beamed and waved from the bank audience — had supported her love of learning and books. Then, she recounted, the Taliban forces “snatched away our normal life. . . . They blasted schools, they flogged women, but still we did not expect them to shoot a child.”

At Kim’s prompting, several of the invited students read questions sent from others around the world. One asked which books she liked, another whether she had ever wished she were a boy, and a third wanted to know what advice she would give to the fathers of girls.

“I would tell them don’t give anything extra to your daughters, but don’t clip their wings,” Yousafzai said. “Let them fly, and give them the same rights as your sons. Give them a chance to be a human being.”

 
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