As I return home from a busy day signing off on proofs and churning out cutesy paper patterns, I find my husband, Neil, at the kitchen table. He wears a complicated frown as he pores over a score of tiled browser windows telling various iterations of a singular story. “Come here,” he says, flipping to a second tab, “you’ve got to see this.” It’s The Daily Show, and as I poise for Tea Party zingers and Obamacare barbs, I see instead a girl in hijab, a brilliant smile, and a whole new hope for world politics.
The story was all about a girl. Malala Yousafzai achieved international fame one day when she took a Taliban bullet to the head. Her vocal support for girls’ education had earned her a spot on the Taliban’s hit list. It’s a group with an all-too-familiar radical bent that thrives, among other things, on the cultural ideal of women’s inferiority and silence. One moment Malala was boarding a bus and the next, she faced a hopeful assassin, eager to erase her words and her work from the world.
What lies in Malala’s story is the basic, all-encompassing fear that often accompanies a young woman’s first nervous tiptoe into her own voice. Scholars Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar might call this fear “anxiety of authorship,” an unhappy hallmark among women who challenge their culture to speak out. To even a passive onlooker, the symbolism in Malala’s tale is clear: Girl speaks. Girl rattles cages. Man shoots girl. To the privileged westerner, Malala’s assault stands at the far reaches—though still in eerie focus—of what women or other marginalized voices consider possible when we take our first shaky steps toward a changed world. Speak up—be silenced. Simple.
The fear in this story is a looming example of what can go wrong with activism; however, what stands out in living color here is not the tragedy of silence but the courage of perseverance—because Malala lived. And silence is not her style.
As Malala’s attack story found global momentum, so did her message. (To catch the details of her story, check out the 6 October 2013 article online in The Independent, “The making of Malala Yousafzai” by Simon Usborne.) Passed over by a hair’s breadth for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala has been praised with a garland of awards for her continued voice in girls’ education in Pakistan. It’s a sad fact that the world is often brimming with stories of violence against women and girls, and the West typically uses a heavy hand to illustrate these horrors in the Middle East specifically. Stories like Malala’s attack and that of the Taliban’s mutilation of Aesha Mohammadzai in 2009 paint the region—and, by association, the politics of the veil—as a social landscape that is an inherent enemy to women. But that’s only if we allow the story to end with the attackers. Malala and young Muslim women like her have more to uncover.
Jump back to my kitchen and to the Daily Show episode where Jon Stewart yielded the floor to this fierce and charming young activist. Stewart, a seasoned comedian with a pundit bent, shelved much of his satirical edge as he asked Malala to describe where she had been and where she was headed. She explained that early on in her activism, she heard the Taliban had been planning to target her and her message of girls’ education. When her father had asked what she planned to do about it, she had responded cheekily that she would hit them with her shoe. In her recounting the story, a wave of laughter arose from the studio audience at The Daily Show.
Then, she shared her father’s wise response: “If you hit the [Taliban] with your shoe then there would be no difference between you and the [Taliban]. You must not treat others that much with cruelty . . . you must fight others but through peace, and through dialogue, and through education.” And that, Malala said to the world, is what she planned to do. Education, she said, is power, especially for young women, and that’s what the Taliban—and other groups who value the invisible woman—is so afraid of.
As I stood in my modern kitchen leaning over a glowing laptop (both products of my advanced education and Western middle-class privilege), it gave me pause to consider this Pakistani girl and the trials she has to battle on a daily basis in order to make her basic ideals understood. For me, a woman who grew up with Title IX and a school system armed with compulsory sex ed and clean water, the story takes a smack at my sensibilities and reveals a sense of life falling short. Malala’s struggle is a literal bullet to the brain that snaps into focus a pantheon of feminist theorists who have spurned the world to win their individuality. In Malala I heard the ardent voice of Wangari Maathai, demanding that women be educated and prepared for the world. I saw her hold the hand of Christine de Pizan as the two walked bravely into a medieval library built for men. I saw her re-imagine history in her very own Alexiad, and I watched her lobby for all Muslim women alongside the ghost of Huda Sha’arawi. I saw in her all her religious foremothers, wives of the prophet who dictated hadith and studied the depths of their spirituality with abandon, working to create a beautiful faith system that would later be corrupted by culture. And then I saw a world failing Malala and all the girls just like her, and I felt an eerie pang that until all are free, no one is.
And that is precisely where Malala stands. In her Pakistan, she fights for girls to have the right to learn about their world and about themselves. Her dedication, even in the face of vicious attack, shows with simplicity how education is a worthy and liberating ticket out of oppression’s tendrils—no easy ride for sure, but, as Malala’s continued activism shows, always a passage worth taking.
Erin Seaward-Hiatt is a graphic designer, writer, and part-time graduate student with a flair for social justice and all things bookish. Among her favorite study topics are Mormon feminisms, Islamic women, religious texts, and Charlotte Brontë. Her essay on Mormon faith and feminism appears in the book Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. She lives in Utah Valley with her screenwriter husband—and partner in creativity—Neil Hiatt.