For most of us, her story began on October 9, 2012, the day a young man with a handkerchief over his face boarded a bus filled with 20 singing, chatting girls on their way home from school in the lush Swat Valley of northern Pakistan. "Who is Malala?" the man asked. When the girls unwittingly glanced toward their 15-year-old friend near the back, he lifted a black Colt .45 and fired three shots, sending a bullet through her head.
But who is Malala? Her real story, she told me, started years before.
When Malala Yousafzai—named, fittingly, after Malalai, a female Afghan martyr who died in battle—was born, her father, a teacher named Ziauddin, refused to grieve the way fathers in his culture were expected to upon having daughters; instead, he wrote her into his clan's family tree—a distinction usually reserved for boys. And Malala's sense of justice came young. When, at an early age, she saw children living on a garbage dump, she wrote a letter to God. "Give me strength and courage," she pleaded. "I want to make this world perfect."
Malala's valley had always been conservative; she remembers disliking having to cover her face, and bristling at the fact that while boys and men could walk freely around town, her mother could not go out without a male relative, "even if it was a five-year-old boy!" But real danger only came to her peaceful region when she was 10—in the form of the Taliban. Then, says Malala,"I got afraid. Not of the Taliban, but because they were banning girls' education." Schools closed; many were bombed; bodies of dissenters piled up in a town square. The local Taliban leader used his radio show to congratulate by name those girls who dropped out of school. The school Malala's father ran stayed open, but for safety, it removed its signs and the girls stopped wearing their uniforms, which would have made them targets.
And that's when Malala really became Malala. When a BBC journalist asked her father to recommend a teacher or student willing to document the terror, no one volunteered—except his own daughter. "I thought, What a great opportunity," she recalls. "Terrorism will spill over if you don't speak up." Under the pen name Gul Makai, she wrote frank, detailed diary entries about her life under the Taliban. Though many urged her to stop, and some have since criticized her father for allowing her to do it, Malala wasn't worried. The Taliban, she remembers, "had never come for a girl."
Emboldened, she began giving speeches across Pakistan in favor of education. She won the country's National Peace Prize and met the prime minister, presenting him with a list of demands on behalf of children—rebuilt schools, a girls' college—but keeping her expectations low. "I told myself, 'I shall not wait for any prime minister—when I'm a politician, I will do these things myself,'" she says. Malala led a double life: In one world, she was an Ugly Betty fan known for her spot-on impersonations of teachers and friends; in the other, a rising voice of dissent against terror. She started to realize her work could be risky. "I used to think that one day the Taliban would come [for me]," she told me. "And I thought, What would I do? I said to myself, 'Malala, you must be brave. You must not be afraid of anyone. You are only trying to get an education—you are not committing a crime.' I would even tell [my attacker], 'I want education for your son and daughter.' " Her own mother decided to take classes to learn to read and write.
And then came October 9.
Her parents rushed to her bedside. "My brave daughter, my beautiful daughter," lamented her father, leaning over her. But his brave daughter recovered, thanks in part to two visiting British doctors who were able to take her to a hospital in Birmingham, England. Around the world, women, men, and children prayed for her. Thousands of letters piled up (one addressed simply to "The Girl Shot in the Head, Birmingham"), and people everywhere asked: Would she be okay? Could she lead a normal life again?
It turns out that for Malala, normal was never the goal. In the year since her attack, she has spoken, written, and fought her way into history, becoming the world's leading advocate for educating girls. Not normal—extraordinary.
The issue certainly needs a hero right now. Around the world an estimated 66 million girls are being denied the right to an education. Fix that, scholars have long said, and you could change the course of human history. "There's a saying," says Sheryl WuDunn, coauthor of Half the Sky, "that when you educate boys, you educate boys; when you educate girls, you educate a village." Educated girls are safer from sexual assault and childhood marriage; they go on to raise more-educated children themselves. Her Muslim faith, Malala points out, is in her favor: "Islam tells us every girl and boy should be educated," she says. "I don't know why the Taliban have forgotten it."
For that sensibility, and for her unstoppable drive to change the world, Malala is Glamour's 2013 Women of the Year Fund honoree. The money raised goes to the project she is most passionate about, The Malala Fund, which aims to help children all over the world get the education that is their birthright. The fund recently made its first grant, supporting the educations of 40 girls in the Swat Valley—an achievement that thrills Malala, who wants to expand to other regions and countries (she cites Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria). "Nothing can happen when half the population is in the Stone Age," she says. "I believe that when women are educated, then you will see this world change."
Malala's own world has changed hugely, from a small town to the global stage. She plans to go to college—Oxford, Cambridge, maybe Harvard, "to learn and learn and learn"—and into politics; one of her heroes is the assassinated Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose scarf she wore during that address at the United Nations.
But the place she'd most like to go is home. She misses it dearly. "I miss my room, I miss the traffic—I even miss that garbage dump!" she says. But it's far too dangerous for her there. "We will target her again and attack whenever we have a chance," a Taliban spokesperson told reporters in October. So Malala and her family—her mother, father, and younger brothers Khushal and Atal—are changing the world from abroad. "If Malala can do what she did—take on the Taliban, at risk to her own life," notes 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner (and Woman of the Year) Jody Williams, "then there is really no excuse for the rest of us not to get up off our butts and work to make the world a better place."
The last time I spoke to Malala (by Skype, with her family milling about behind her), I asked her what she wantedGlamour's 12 million readers to know. "You can tell them a story from my imagination!" she said cheerfully. "When God created man and woman, he was thinking, Who shall I give the power to, to give birth to the next human being? And God chose woman. And this is the big evidence that women are powerful. Women are strong. Women can do anything. Come out and struggle for your rights; nothing can happen without your voice.
"Do not wait for me to do something for your rights. It's your world, and you can change it."