When the world learned that Malala Yousafzai had become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history, the 17-year-old was right where she belonged: in school.
The young advocate for female education has said she wants to be seen by classmates at her private girls high school in Birmingham, England, as a “normal girl” since surviving Taliban bullets two years ago. But normalcy has proven next to impossible amid growing international acclaim, and the new honor is a stratospheric fame-enhancer.
Yousafzai, who was in chemistry class when the announcement came Friday, made the global media wait to hear her first comments until “after school,” as her organization, the Malala Fund, tweeted.
Life changed irrevocably for Yousafzai at around age 11, when she began anonymously blogging in support of educating girls in Pakistan’s religiously conservative Swat Valley while the Pakistani Taliban controlled the region from 2007 to 2009.
The youngster’s outspokenness collided not only with the strict sharia law imposed by mullahs but also with widespread Pakistani social and religious mores, particularly in rural areas, that can stifle girls’ education, marry them off at an early age and keep them secluded in their homes.
Such tension between secular and religious rules remains barely muted in Pakistan. Officials of a Pakistani private school association have called Yousafzai a tool of the West whose views cloud the minds of Muslims. The group reiterated a ban on her autobiography, “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban,” in its 40,000 member schools.
On Friday, in Yousafzai’s home town of Mingora, several residents spoke proudly of how the Nobel win could transform the Swat district’s image to a peaceful one — but others were subdued, even fearful.
“Some people are silent, as they don’t like her and her father, but others are quiet due to the possible threat from the militants,” said Aftab Ali, a 41-year-old businessman.
After the Pakistani army routed the Taliban from Swat, Yousafzai’s identity became known. Wide media exposure put her life at risk; she openly traveled to and from the Khushal Girls School and College that her father founded. Going home after class on Oct. 9, 2012, she and two classmates were shot by a Taliban gunman.
The attack raised a groundswell of admiration for her sacrifice. As her celebrity grew, her name was put forward last year for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the Nobel committee decided not to award it then, after weighing the impact of the prize on a teenager.
“The committee took its time,” Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, said in a video interview posted on the official Nobel Prize YouTube Channel. “And the committee has been remarkably impressed.
“But of course, it’s true, she’s a girl, she’s 17 years old,” he added, “and this will dramatically change her life, and we hope for the better.”
Yousafzai has been embraced by Hollywood and even appeared on “The Daily Show.” Like pop stars, she is instantly recognizable by one name — Malala.
Average teenager? Hardly. She spent her 16th birthday addressing the United Nations and her 17th in Nigeria “to show solidarity” with the schoolgirls abducted earlier in the year by Boko Haram militants.
Yet she seems to yearn for keeping a hold on the teenage Malala — the girl who was a fan of Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez in Pakistan before her exile, which she and her family chose in part because they feared she would be attacked again at home.
She is not universally celebrated in Pakistan. Some claimed after her shooting that it was all a “drama” — a common Pakistani term for a hoax — even though the Taliban immediately asserted responsibility for the shooting.
“Her new life continues to divide Pakistani public opinion,” reporter Saim Saeed wrote in Pakistan’s English-language Express Tribune on Friday. “Some see her position as Western stooge only cemented; her well-wishers see her as a powerful force to both combat religious extremism as well as an advocate for women’s rights.”
The only previous Nobel Prize winner in Pakistan also divided the public. Religious prejudices have overshadowed the country’s 1979 winner, nuclear scientist Abdus Salam, whose achievement is all but ignored because he was an Ahmadi, a member of a minority sect that Pakistan’s constitution has decreed not to be Muslim.
Asked about the hardest part of adapting to life in England, where she has lived for two years with her two brothers and parents, Yousafzai told the BBC last year: “Here they considered me a good girl, the girl who stood up for children’s rights, and the girl who was shot by the Taliban. They never look at me as Malala, as their friend, and as a normal girl,” she said.
The teen said she hates getting up in the morning, leaves clothes around the house and fights with her brother Atal over who gets to use the iPod.
Now, more than ever, Yousafzai will need to balance the earnestness of her cause against her quest for normalcy.
In August, she told the Guardian newspaper that she liked missing class only if it would “bring real change.”
On Friday, even after being informed in class about her Nobel win, she stayed in school, going on to physics and English classes. Although her mark on history will be indelible — and possibly bring real change — she later told reporters, “I considered it as a normal day.”