Malala Yousafzai awarded Liberty Medal

Liberty Medal recipient Malala Yousafzai shows the crowd the medal after accepting it Tuesday night at the National Constitution Center. ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )

Honoring the bravery of a girl who refused to be denied an education - and nearly paid for it with her life - 1,400 guests gathered Tuesday night under a white tent and tight security at the National Constitution Center to bestow the 2014 Liberty Medal on Malala Yousafzai, 17, the youngest recipient of the quarter-century-old prize.

Draped in a traditional Pashtun shawl of her native Pakistan, Yousafzai took the stage to wild applause.

"I thank the people, and especially the children of Philadelphia, for their warm welcome and their love and support," she said, draping the red, white, and blue ribbon of the gold medal around her neck.

Touching a hand to her heart, she smiled appreciatively on a stage that included Susan Corbett, wife of the governor; Mayor Nutter and his daughter, Olivia; Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania; and Jeffrey Rosen, Constitution Center chief executive.

Also in the audience was Pakistan's ambassador to the United Nations, Masood Khan.

Yousafzai called for spending money on books, not guns, and said she was speaking up for children caught in crises in such places as India, Syria, Nigeria, and Gaza. "We cannot become a generation lost," she said.

"I ask all countries all around the world: Let us say no to wars. Let us say no to conflicts."

She said she would donate the award's $100,000 prize to improving education and support for Pakistani children.

"Together we are stronger than fear, oppression, and terrorism," she said. "History does not descend from the sky; it is we who make history. One book, one pen, one child can change the world."

Waiting for the presentation to begin, Katie Malone of Landenberg said she was "absolutely elated" at the choice of Yousafzai and hoped that her own 17-year-old daughter, Fiona, an Avon Grove High School senior, would be inspired by the Pakistani teen's best-selling memoir, I Am Malala, which Malone carried.

Marie Killian of East Falls, a human resources company vice president, said she had never attended a Liberty Medal presentation but got tickets this year so that her granddaughter Ava Killian, 13, a Philadelphia eighth grader, could hear Yousafzai's remarks.

In her opening remarks, Gutmann turned to Yousafzai and said, "Thank you for reminding us that education is the hand that rocks the cradle of liberty."

Born in 1997, Yousafzai attended the Khushal School, which her father had founded, in the remote Swat Valley of northern Pakistan. She was 10 when Taliban mullahs took control of her region and banned higher education for girls, insisting they stay at home, dress modestly, and not go out without a male relative to escort them.

Passionate about learning, Yousafzai refused to be cowed. She attended school in defiance of the mullahs' edicts.

In 2009, under the pseudonym Gul Makai, she wrote a blog for the BBC about the growing educational crisis in Swat. It didn't take long for her identity to be revealed. Then the New York Times produced a short documentary that featured her struggle to sustain girls' education under oppressive conditions.

In 2012, her story became a worldwide cause célèbre after Taliban gunmen, irked by her refusal to come to heel, boarded a school bus and demanded, "Who is Malala?"

Her friends kept mum, but some looked in her direction. The gunmen fired three shots, hitting Yousafzai in the head and neck. She was evacuated to Birmingham, England, for medical treatment. Looking into a mirror at her partially paralyzed face after an initial surgery, she saw also that her doctor had positioned a box of tissues between them, expecting Yousafzai to cry.

"Maybe the old Malala would have cried," she wrote in her memoir. "But when you've nearly lost your life, a funny face in the mirror is simply proof that you are still here on Earth."

The bullets that shattered Yousafzai's skull seem only to have intensified her commitment, a resolve that echoed in the Pennsylvania Girlchoir's performance of Sara Bareilles' hit song, "Brave."

"Say what you wanna say, and let the words fall out," the 35 Pennsylvania girls sang. "Show me how big your brave is!"

Among the speakers was Minnijean Brown Trickey of the so-called Little Rock Nine, African American students who fought for the right to attend the racially segregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. While all of them experienced verbal and physical harassment, only Trickey was suspended and later expelled for fighting back against the daily torment. She went on to become a deputy assistant secretary for workforce diversity in the Clinton administration. She said Yousafzai epitomized the saying often attributed to Mohandas K. Gandhi: Be the change you want to see in the world.

The ceremony included excerpts from Yousafzai's blog, read by local students: Nikki Adeli, 17, a junior at the Science Leadership Academy; Little League star Mo'ne Davis, 13, an eighth grader at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy; Niayla Dia-Murray, 17, a junior at Constitution High School; Colleen McBride, 17, senior class president at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown; and Melissa Shang, 12, a sixth grader at Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School in Berwyn.

The Liberty Medal, established in 1988, commemorates the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. Given annually, it honors "men and women of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe." Recipients are chosen by a committee of the National Constitution Center board. Among past winners are human-rights crusaders and heads of state.

Earlier this month, Yousafzai was named a corecipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is the seventh Liberty Medal honoree to also win or share a Nobel.

In her remarks, Yousafzai recalled telling a teacher that she was a bit distracted and unable to complete a homework assignment after the Nobel was announced.

"That excuse didn't work," she said, eliciting chuckles.


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1