A line of people wrapped around the outside of the Harvard Kennedy School of Politics forum building. People could see their breath in the cold air as they spoke to their colleagues and classmates. Passersby paused to ask what the commotion was about. The answer?
Malala Yousafzai is inside.
The now 21-year-old was riding a bus home from school in the Swat Valley of Pakistan in 2012 when a man entered and asked which one of the girls was Malala. When she answered, he shot her in the head.
The Taliban had issued an order that young women should not attend school, and she was violating that. Yousafzai woke up in a hospital in the U.K., and since then has become an activist for girls’ rights to education.
Yousafzai was invited to Harvard to receive the 2018 Gleitsman Activist Award, which is awarded to leaders who spark social change and inspire others, and speak at “A Conversation with Malala.” Samantha Power, a Harvard professor and 28th U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations from 2013 to 2017, moderated the conversation.
As the founder of the Malala Fund, Yousafzai has worked to break down the barriers that prevent 130 million girls worldwide from attending school.
Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her work, but explained why she wasn’t excited when she first found out about the award.
She was in school, and the headmaster—who only pulled people out of class when they were in trouble—came in and asked her to come outside. Nervous for what was about to come next, she described that finding out she had won the Nobel Peace Prize was a relief.
She still had much of the school day left and did not want to miss class, so she went back to the science lab to continue learning about atomic bombs, which she said she still thinks is a funny coincidence.
“And then I went home and my parents were very very happy,” she said, drawing laughs from the crowd at her nonchalance and humility at winning one of the most prestigious awards in the world.
Many of the audience members were the very people that Yousafzai champions: school-age girls. Some were there with their parents, while others were brought in groups by their teachers.
One of the girls, a 10-year-old named Ariana, stood up and told Yousafzai that she really admired her.
“When you were going through all of your tough times,” she asked, “what kept you going?”
Yousafzai riveted the crowd with every response she gave, particularly those about her father, Ziauddin, who was in the front row smiling at everything she said. In her area of Pakistan, she explained, women were known by whatever male relatives they had: You were someone’s daughter or someone’s sister—never your own person.
The elder Yousafzai didn’t want that for his daughter. So he named her after Malalai, a woman known in Pashtun history for being killed while inspiring the Afghan army to defeat the British, making her a national symbol of victory and bravery.
Similarly, when his cousin brought over the family tree, which consisted only of the men in the family, the elder Yousafzai quickly wrote in “Malala.”
“Before I was born, he believed in me,” the Yousafzai daughter said.
The conversation never strayed too far from the relationship fathers and powerful daughters have.
One woman in the back of the room went up to the microphone to ask a question.
“Hello, my name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” she began.
Everyone in the forum whipped around to catch a glance of the U.S. Representative-elect from New York’s 14th district. She explained that her father had also named her after a powerful woman, and that she’s seen firsthand what having a supportive father can do for a girl.
Yousafzai explained that her father had to challenge both his culture’s and his own beliefs about what kind of life is right for a woman. He went against the status quo by believing his daughter should attend school.
“He was a feminist before he even knew the word,” Yousafzai said.