On Tuesday afternoon, the Pennsylvania Convention Center was buzzing with a single word, one with singsong syllables:
“Malala,” people would say, looking for the door to Ballroom AB. “Malala? Is this where Malala happens?”
Malala Yousafzai swept through Philadelphia, greeted with adoration and wonder.
This is the girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating education for all. This is the girl who survived an assassination attempt to stand up to her would-be killers, to take the fight for education to the world stage. This is the girl who has the ear of world leaders, the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
This is the girl who, teased mercilessly by her younger brothers, gives as good as she gets.
“Fighting with my brothers is quite nice. Sometimes I like to tease them and annoy them,” said Yousafzai during an onstage interview with MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow. “I don’t share that, usually.”
During the 42-minute interview the activist continued her campaign for education as a basic human right, her strong, clear message only flagging when asked about her favorite songs and movies (she does not much traffic in pop culture).
Wearing a red paisley headscarf, the 17 year-old said the day Taliban soldiers targeted her on a school bus, on October 9, 2012, changed everything for her and for Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban.
“No one body could say, ‘shame on Taliban’ before. No one could say, ‘yes, the Taliban – they are the responsible people,'” said Yousafzai. “A great change came, the people started to say to them, ‘yes, you are the responsible ones.'”
Later that evening, the National Constitution Center awarded Yousafzai its Liberty Medal, using its honoree to reach out to and inspire young people. Many audience members were middle and high school girls. On stage, the 35 voice Pennsylvania Girlchoir serenaded her with “Brave” by Sara Bareilles, and Mayor Michael Nutter’s 19 year-old daughter Olivia lauded Yousafzai: “You’ve shown us that age does not limit our potential to affect change.”
Her father, the mayor, said of all the Liberty Medal ceremonies he has attended, this was the most emotional.
Amy Gutman, the president of the University of Pennsylvnia, said Yousafzai is no child; instead a young woman who “reminds us that education is the weapon tyrants most fear.”
Minnijean Brown Trickey, one of the Little Rock Nine who, in 1957, integrated an Arkansas high school under armed guard, connected the American Civil Rights movement to Yousafzai’s activism. “We were only 14 and 15,” said Trickey, now 73. “Yet however great an enemy we face, we do not act alone.”
Yousafzai had to adjust the height of the microphone when she stepped up to give her acceptance speech. “The podium is always taller than me,” she said.
She recognized Philadelphia as the birthplace of American democracy, and said America and Pakistan are similar, both having liberated themselves from British rule. She then went into her by now familiar story of being a young activist, deciding to speak against her oppressors under the threat of violence.
“I decided because I had two options: one was not to speak and wait to be killed, the second was to speak and then be killed,” said Yousafzai. “I chose the second.”
She underscored her message that education is a fundamental right, which – like democracy – comes with responsibility. She criticized those who would use religion as a justification to deny this right.
“In Islam, every girl and every boy is allowed to get education. Getting education is not only each person’s right, but also responsibility,” said Yousafzai. “There are some groups who are misusing the name of Islam for their own personal benefits, because Islam is a religion of peace.”
The Liberty Medal comes with a $100,000 prize. Yousafzai announced the money will go to support the youth education in Pakistan.