As the world today celebrates the first ever International Day of the Girl Child, one of the most exemplary examples of girlhood fights for her life in a Peshawar, Pakistan military hospital.
Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai might have been any teenaged girl. She’s devoted to being on the Internet, and her daily behavior could very well be called stubborn, defiant and headstrong.
Against a backdrop of men claiming the religious obligation to search houses to see if anyone was listening to music, watching television, or to find any girls at study, Yousafzai admitted to hiding books under her bed.
But unlike the typical teen defiance that’s often blamed parents’ gray hairs, Yousafzai’s rebellion takes the form of her demanding her right – and the rights of other Pakistani girls – to be educated. And she speaks out for all the girls who are unable.
She’s been working for the educational and the human rights of girls since she was a preteen. At 11, Yousafzai came to international prominence for writing a blog detailing the atrocities of the Taliban in her region of Pakistan. Even as a girl that young and that small, she was a fierce and unflinching voice against the closing of schools for girls, blogging under a pen name for the BBC.
She recalled nightmares and feared being beheaded, yet she still gave interviews, continued to chronicle her life through blog posts, and carried books underneath her clothes. She realized, as did her parents, that any of these actions on their own would make her into a target for the Taliban. In one interview, the 11-year-old said, “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I’m afraid of no one.”
Yousafzai’s attack began when Taliban militants boarded a school van demanding to know which of three girls riding home was Malala Yousufzai. Each child was shot in the attack, and the Pakistani Taliban have released statements that if she survives this shooting, they will come after her again. Warning other children who might take part in similar activities, the Taliban has made clear that the same fate very well could await them.
Doctors removed bullets from Yousufzai’s head and neck, and reports are that her prognosis is improving.
This attack has caused massive uproar across Pakistan. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf promised that the government would pay for her medical treatment. The country’s Minister of the Interior, Rehman Malik, said a decision is being considered whether to move her abroad for further treatment.
Malala Yousafzai is the unfortunate extreme, but she is the reason that this International Day of the Girl Child is so necessary. The prevalence of violence inflicted upon girls, the need to ensure girls’ education, and the focus of ending child brides are issues which are too seldom receive adequate attention. And as this young girl fights for her very life, too many other young girls fight in a more figurative sense. And for too long their cries have gone unanswered.
Yousafzai’s cries for education were so strong that grown men tried to silence her voice forever. Calling her “western-minded,” and slurring her with the term “secularist,” the Pakistani Taliban shows their hand. These cultural and religious terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere understand fully, that educating a girl all but guarantees that she will first be able to recognize injustice, and perhaps that will cause her to become willing to call out injustice in her own life..
The Taliban have cloaked themselves in their religion and their holy book. And they’ve been given a pass by many who are intimidated by their threats and actual violence. Many are quick, and correct, to point out that the brand of Islam espoused by the Taliban is not the religion of peace and enlightenment to which most of the world’s Muslims adhere.
But Yousafzai is not the canary in the coal mine. She is a modern online incarnation of the clashing of knowledge and superstition which causes those in power to fear for their ability to remain so. When you teach a girl, it’s hard to convince her of her inferiority. Educating girls is a path to the decimation of a culture of male superiority.
Education is the single greatest path out of a life of poverty. Teaching a girl will make it far more likely that she not marry young. She will have healthier children. She will be more empowered to demand the ability to govern her own life. And the lives of her children. And why not her culture and her country?
This Taliban attack on one little girl illustrates the power that every little girl holds.
We must make it possible that every girl can be educated. Even those here in the U.S.
While she may not call herself “secular,” Malala Yousafzai fights for that very cause. Education and equality. They’re damning ideals indeed.
Jamila Bey is host of the Sex, Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR with Jamila on the Voice of Russia Radio network.