WASHINGTON -- If you occasionally think that the United Nations doesn't serve any real purpose -- and that its cost exceeds its worth -- look back on last Friday at the international body and its deliberations in New York.
The tired old bureaucrats of the last 68 years suddenly woke up. Some of the Middle Eastern and African diplomats who have hung around there eternally had the decency to bow their heads, at least for just a moment, and not leave the room during "the speech." The women delegates and other women in the room seemed to be sitting straighter in their seats and showing more clearly both the pride and the rebellion in their faces.
A year ago, a speech by a 16-year-old village girl from Pakistan would scarcely have raised a ripple in the beautiful U.N. building on the East River. But now, as she spoke directly to the thousand students from all over the world attending the U.N. Youth Assembly on July 12 -- and indirectly to an increasingly guilty world -- she was already a universal symbol.
Standing between U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Malala Yousafzai made her demands utterly clear. "We call upon all the governments to fight against terrorism," she began, "to protect children from brutality and harm. We call upon the United Nations to expand opportunity and education for girls all over the world. We cannot all succeed when half of us are hampered."
Of course, this still-little girl had a great "advantage." Last October while she was en route to school, Taliban gunmen stopped her bus and called out her name. She stood up and they shot her in the head and neck. Taken first to a Pakistani hospital and not expected to live, she was then flown to Britain treated for her severe wounds. Slowly, she got better; but in the meantime, she became the symbol of savage man's hatred for the educated woman.
It was a terrible mistake on the part of the Taliban, the ultra-conservative Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan in the 1980s and is fighting the Americans and the Afghan government to return to power. Shooting her because she had spoken out in school on behalf of women's education, the Taliban made the error of creating a martyr for women's learning -- something few were ready to die for until then.
Women's education advocates now have a LIVING martyr. A beautiful, young girl, glowing in her expectation of womanhood, wanting so much to learn that she would risk her life for it, able to stand up gracefully before the diplomats and scoundrels of the world alike and tell her story.
What's more, she had a perfect name, either for martyrdom or for fame and celebrity. M-A-L-A-L-A! Simple and clear. A name that even tongue-tied Westerners could easily enough pronounce. And she did not look the part of the girl challenging the Taliban. On the stage last Friday, she wore a flattering, but simple, embroidered pink hijab, with only her face showing.
The message, repeated over and over, was dramatically direct. "I am the same Malala," she told the group. "My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same and my dreams are the same. I am not against anyone. Nor am I here to speak against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak up for the right to education of every child."
In many parts of the world, she went on, women and children are victims of child labor, forced to marry at an early age. And so she called out for every government and world leader to stand up for women's and girls' rights, including compulsory free education for every child.
"The extremists were afraid of education. ... That is why they're blasting schools every day. Because they're afraid of progress, afraid of change," she said.
USA Today reported that "grown women in the audience were seen wiping tears from their eyes."
There have been many symbols for women's emancipation in the world. Mother Teresa, exercising her profoundly Catholic conscience in the slums of Calcutta, ministering to the poorest of the poor. Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi yoked their nations' political systems to their own ambitions and made history for men and women alike. Anthropologists like the great Margaret Mead told us why men treated women the way they did.
But while there have been more and more women heading countries, from Brazil to India and South Korea, we have not had a young woman of repute speaking directly to the young women and men of the world. And this is where it must start.
So perhaps Malala, who lives now in England with her sympathetic parents, will be that youthful spokesman. She has many advantages going for her, the strongest one being that her experience shows how one courageous girl triumphed over barbarity.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)