Faces of the year: The women

Nicola Adams, Marie Colvin, and Malala Yousafzai

Every year the Magazine selects a group of men and women to be its Faces of the Year.

It's not an award. This is not a definitive list of the most important or influential people. It's not based on people's achievements, their popularity or their contribution to society.

It is not about people like Barack Obama, or the Pope, who make the news every year, but those whose fame is really something of the last 12 months.

Here are three women who made headlines in 2012: Reporter Marie Colvin, activist Malala Yousafzai and boxer Nicola Adams.

Marie Colvin talks to the Duchess of Cornwall

The BBC's Lyse Doucet pays tribute to her friend and colleague, Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria in February.

We miss Marie.

In Cairo, in December, as Egypt's capital was engulfed again by angry protests, I remembered Marie's reporting when Egypt's revolution began. We swapped stories from Tahrir Square, shared numbers and names. That was Marie - kind to colleagues, engaged in the story, not just meeting people in the news, but entering their lives to understand, to empathise.

"Every time I go out on a story I miss Marie," reflected mutual friend Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News.

"Most of all we needed her to report from Syria," she regretted. "Marie would have brought her unique depth and humanity to bear on it."

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We called Marie the bravest of the brave, gutsy and glamorous. Whenever our global tribe of journalists gathered for the story of the day, Marie was there, and filled every room”

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Marie gave her life doing just that.

On the BBC World Service radio on the night of 21 February, I - and millions of others - heard Marie's distinctive voice, her barely concealed rage as she described a "sickening" situation in Baba Amr neighbourhood in the embattled Syrian city of Homs. She made all of us care about a baby boy hit by shrapnel who lay dying, "his little tummy heaving up and down..."

That night came news that a prominent Syrian citizen journalist, Rami al Sayed, died in Homs. The next day Marie, and French photo journalist Remi Ochlik, lost their lives. Others, including Marie's experienced colleague Paul Conroy, were seriously wounded.

When I travelled to Baba Amr months later, its story was etched painfully in a devastated landscape, a virtual ghost town. In another blighted neighbourhood, as UN monitors urged us to leave a still volatile area, a fresh-faced man suddenly arrived on a blue bicycle, announcing he had worked with foreign journalists. "Did you know Marie Colvin?" I asked, hoping for some small keepsake of her last days.

He beamed the warmest of smiles in this darkest of places. "Oh Marie," he gushed, "she was so nice, she was so brave."

We called Marie the bravest of the brave, gutsy and glamorous. Whenever our global tribe of journalists gathered for the story of the day, Marie was there, and filled every room.

She charmed the good and the great, and held them to account. She helped the best in the business, and beginners, too. A young freelance journalist told me how she first met Marie in 2011 in the embattled Libyan city of Misrata. Marie approached her to ask for a hair band and then inquired with genuine concern about her writing, and her welfare, in a dangerous city.

The horrors of war took their toll on her, too. In 2001 during Sri Lanka's brutal conflict, Marie lost an eye when she was hit by shrapnel. When news of her death broke, many Tamils were among the first to write emotional tributes, and suggest honours in her name.

"I miss her presence enormously as she was one of the few journalists who understood the importance of the story," said former BBC journalist Frances Harrison, author of Still Counting the Dead.

"She kept in touch with her Sri Lankan sources, protected them, and helped them if they were in danger."

That was Marie.

But Sri Lanka, and a life lived dangerously, also left her with post traumatic stress syndrome. Marie tried to lead a more settled life in London. "It just wasn't me," she confided one night in Jerusalem when she was back with the wandering tribe of hacks.

Her sailing holidays on the seas, a wicked sense of humour, and a global group of friends and fellow travellers kept her sane. They all hoped and prayed she would be safe.

When many urged caution shortly before Marie went into Homs, she acknowledged the risk but replied, "It's what we do."

How we wish she was still doing it.

Children light candles and hold a picture of Malala Yousafzai

The shooting of Malala Yousafzai by Taleban gunmen in Pakistan earlier this year shocked the world. The 14-year-old girl had previously blogged for the BBC Urdu website, speaking out against efforts to stop girls in her native Swat valley attending school. Sajid Iqbal, Urdu media analyst for BBC Monitoring, who edited her blog, tells her story.

In January 2009, sitting in her study writing about her daily life for BBCurdu.com, Malala Yousafzai would have had no idea that she was laying the foundations of a global movement against extremist ideology.

Malala was writing about the ordinary experiences of a 12-year-old, but she was living in extraordinarily turbulent times, which meant that even her mundane experiences assumed a grievous tone.

"The night was filled with the noise of artillery fire and I woke up three times," she wrote in one of her diary entries. "But since there was no school, I slept till 10am. Afterwards my friend came over and we discussed our homework. Today is 15th January, the last day before the Taleban edict banning girls' education comes into force."

Already there were glimpses of her deep understanding of the violence and lawlessness in her home town.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai after the attack
  • Began blogging for BBC Urdu in 2009 under pen name Gul Makai aged 11
  • Campaigned for girls' right to education
  • Shot on way home from school in Mingora, main town in Swat Valley
  • Doctors removed bullet from her head
  • Pakistani Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility, saying she was anti-Taliban and secular

"Today our teacher asked us who among you listens to the Taleban's FM radio station. Most of the girls said that they were not listening to it any more. There were a few girls who said they still listen to it. We believed that as long as Taleban FM was on air, there would be was no peace in the valley," she wrote in her diary entry for 4 March 2009.

"The Taleban say that they use their FM channel for Quran lessons. Commander Khalil starts his talk with a Quran lesson. But after a short while he changes his subject and resorts to hurling threats at his opponents. Announcements of war, violence and murder are all channelled through these broadcasts," she adds.

Who can forget the opening of the New York Times' two-part documentary Class Dismissed.

"In the area where I live, there are some people who want to stop educating girls through guns," says Malala's father Ziauddin, who used to run a school in Mangora, in the Swat valley. These words were followed by Malala's powerful first appearance on the screen.

"I want to get an education. I want to be a doctor," she says before bursting into tears.

Her appearances on the local television channels soon after the army wrested the Swat valley from Taleban control made her a household face and turned her words into a message of hope for the people of the area.

Then came her nomination in 2011 for the International Children's Peace Prize, an initiative of the Amsterdam-based KidsRights Foundation. This made her into a national celebrity and prompted the government to give her a peace prize along with prize money amounting to one million Pakistani rupees (£6,365). The provincial government of Sindh also named a school after her.

Nine others faces of 2012

But something very different was in store for Malala Yousafzai. On 9 October 2012, gunmen shot and wounded her on her way home from school. A Pakistani Taleban spokesman told journalists that his group Tehrik-i-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) was responsible.

The attempted murder of Malala generated domestic and international outrage and put the Taleban on the defensive, prompting them to launch a concerted propaganda campaign to "justify" the attack on Malala.

In an unprecedented move, the TTP issued a seven-page statement to portray Malala as an adult, "a clear sinner who stands in defiance of Sharia," and a spy who divulged Taleban secrets in return for awards and rewards from "the Zionists" and the BBC, which published her diaries under the pseudonym Gul Mkai. This, the groups said, made her ineligible for protection under Islamic and Pashtun traditions, which prohibit attacking virtuous women.

Why were the Taleban so perturbed by Malala's growing fame? According to a spokesman, "The name Malala has a special resonance in Pashtun history as it features in Pashto proverbs celebrating the bravery and courage of women.

Malala was a Pashtun woman who fought side-by-side with men to defeat British imperialism.

"But now the enemy is trying to mutilate our history," TTP claimed. "They first highlighted the names of Malala Joya and Malala Shinwari from Afghanistan. Both of them were prostitutes who soiled the sanctity of the name Malala. Now they are doing the same in Pakistan."

Ironically, in their effort to save one Pashtun icon, the Taleban helped create another, which transcends ethnic and national boundaries. She has become not only a symbol of resistance against the Taleban's extremist thinking, but also a global icon of female education.

Nicola Adams celebrates winning gold at the Olympics

If one face epitomised the joyous, infectious optimism of the London Games, it belonged to Nicola Adams, the woman from Leeds who made history by becoming the first female to win a gold medal in Olympic boxing, writes BBC Sport's Ben Dirs.

In a year when the professional game continued to display symptoms of terminal madness - the press conference brawl between British heavyweights David Haye and Dereck Chisora was arguably the biggest boxing story of 2012 - the ever-beaming Nicola Adams presented the friendly face of the sport.

Welsh ring legend Joe Calzaghe said he was "shocked" when he watched flyweight Adams in action - shocked that a woman could fight like him, punch like him, dance like him. He wasn't the only one, although those who had been tracking Adams's progress were not in the least bit surprised.

If the noise of a crowd is an accurate gauge of the level of entertainment being provided and the decibel meter was correctly calibrated, then Adams and her fellow pioneers trumped their male counterparts at the ExCeL Arena.

Nicola Adams

  • Made history when she won the first Olympic gold medal in women's boxing
  • The 30-year-old has been boxing since she was a teenager
  • Has worked as an extra on Coronation Street and Emmerdale

The noise generated by Great Britain's Natasha Jonas and Irish great Katie Taylor caused the bemused Japanese journalist sitting next to me to spend the entire fight with her eyes closed and her hands over her ears. It was raw, it was visceral, it was skilful, it was everything great boxing is meant to be.

When Adams stepped into the ring for her final against world number one Ren Cancan of China, women's boxing was already one of the biggest stories of the Games. And there were some pretty big stories in London last summer. A little more than 10 minutes later and Adams was ingrained on the hearts of a nation.

Adams shimmied and shuffled and even had Cancan on the canvas in the second round before winning comfortably on points. Victory confirmed, her smile grew so wide it threatened to escape the confines of her face.

At the post-fight news conference Adams, her gold medal looking like the Top Rank gong around her slender neck, told a scrum of journalists she would celebrate by walking the dog and dining at Nando's.

"I just like being the normal Nikki Adams," she added. "It's probably going to change now but I'm going to try to stay like that." Polite, human, grounded, an antidote to the often absurd world of professional boxing.

Watching Adams's final had been Barbara Buttrick, an 82-year-old lady who was a pioneer of women's boxing back in the sepia age. When former BBC boxing commentator Peter Wilson heard of Buttrick's "grotesque" ambitions, he wrote: "What a monstrous, degrading, disgusting idea! Would anyone like to go out with a girl sporting two lovely purplish black eyes?"

Olympic glory for Buttrick's fellow Yorkshirewoman might have been the ultimate revenge. Served cold but better late than never. "The quality of their boxing is just as good as the men," said Buttrick. "It's so exciting. When I was around, fighting at the Olympics wasn't even a dream."

Adams did not immediately grasp the enormity of her achievement. "It hasn't really sunk in yet," she said. "Maybe once everything settles down, when I'm in bed tonight, I'll be like 'Wow, I've actually done it'."

It is hard to measure exactly how much Adams's feats did for women's boxing and equality in sport in general. But we will find out for sure one day when future Olympic champions are asked: "Why did you take up the sport?"

"Because I watched Nicola Adams box at the London Games - those hands, those feet, that smile. Who wouldn't want to be like her?"

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