“We Cannot Succeed When Half of Us Are Held Back”

The best examples of social progress are always those who are themselves a living testament to the change they wish to make.  When Frederick Douglass electrified the nation with his righteous speeches about the horrors of slavery, many in the South doubted that he was ever a slave, because no savage Negro could possibly be so articulate.  His very existence was a testament to the truth of his words, that blacks were human beings and no society worth saving could countenance treating them like beasts.

So it is with Malala Yousafzai.  The Pakistani student who was nearly murdered by the Taliban for daring to attend school against the prohibitive sexism of their flavor of religious dictatorship was in the United States this week after having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and while she did not win, she got the kind of exposure for her cause that can lead to a hundred, a thousand, a million other people to follow its calling.  That cause is a simple enough one:  education for women.  It is so simple that to those of us in the West, spoiled by the kind of opportunities granted to girls even in our still-sexist society, it seems almost ridiculous, but in many parts of the world — particularly those suffering under the crushing burden of poverty, where it is considered an unaffordable luxury, or those living with the cruel dogmas of theocratic governance, which thinks it an affront to a terribly small-minded god — the whole idea of schooling of any kind for girls is unthinkable.  Malala is from just such a place, and her astonishing bravery, resilience, intelligence and focus are the best possible example of why universal education is so necessary.

Greatness of the sort manifested by this tiny 16-year-old (Ban Ki-Moon towered over her when they met at the United Nations) is usually a combination of good character and good fortune; Malala is no exception.  She was born lucky inasmuch as her father, a small-town educator in the Taliban-dominated region of Swat, believed that it was senseless to deny girls the kind of opportunity that only education can provide, and, accordingly, opened up his school to girls.  She was also lucky to live in the information age, where her simple struggle to get an education in an environment poisonous to learning was broadcast to the world through her own blog, and amplified by the arrival of a sympathetic documentary crew that spread her name across the media-literate globe.   But none of those things would have been enough if Malala herself, a teenage girl with the poise and composure of a woman three times her age, was not such a remarkable human being.  She was determined to pursue an education from a time that most children think of school as a terrifying new burden.  Public exposure did not distract her from her purpose, but only led her to speak out for others less lucky than herself.  Her father, torn between belief in his principles and the desire to protect his child at any cost, nearly faltered when Malala began to receive threats from the Taliban; but, at only twelve years old, she was courageous enough for both of them, and convinced him that she must continue going to school every day, or his own act of courage would be wasted.  It cannot be an easy thing for any father to have to lean on the strength of his child, but the boundless and inexpressible pride he shows in her to this day proves that the payoff has been enormous.

It was only a year ago that the Taliban made good on their threat, and blasted the school bus carrying Malala and her friends with gunfire.  She took a bullet to the head.  If she had died, it would still have made an incredible and inspirational, though tragic, story; but she was made of stronger stuff.  Less than one year after an experience that literally came within centimeters of ending her life, she was meeting presidents and prime ministers, finishing her first book, and being nominated for a Nobel Prize.  Whatever you did in the last year, it wasn’t as amazing as what she did.  It is that particular quality that is so impressive about the truly heroic among us:  we get the sensation that no one could ever be as great as they are, and yet their message is that, given the opportunity, everyone can be as great as they are, because they do not aspire to greatness.  All they want is opportunity, recognition that they deserve the chance to be as human as we are, the ability to join the greater world of human beings instead of living forever in the shadowy back-worlds of the segregated minority.

Economic justice and the rights of the working class have always been my key social issues, but the older I get, the more I believe that universal educational opportunity for women is a crucial part of those issues.  A society cannot succeed — economically, socially, or on any other level in which success can be measured — if it deliberately excludes over half its population from the means to better itself.  Just as there are great artists, scientists, inventors, and innovators in every slum in the world, their potential pissed away against the concrete walls of poverty, there is, in every group of girls denied an education, a healer, an activist, a technician, a liberator who will never emerge if not given the chance to say what is inside her with the language she can only achieve from study.   That is Malala’s real lesson — that for all her grace, her brilliance, and her bravery, she is not a unique creation, but an example of the possible.  And, indeed, evidence of that can be found among her friends:  some of the girls with her on the bus that day she caught a bullet in the eye have followed her example, furthering their own education and becoming advocates for girls’ education in their own right.  In such ways are movements born.

It’s rare that even the noblest public figures are without their detractors, and sadly, Malala isn’t one of them. (Check out this article, which features some pretty depressing points of view from her own home town, from dupes and rubes to the cowardly and the cowed to one guy who tries to mansplain that he’s the guy who should be getting all the attention.)  But the fact remains that it’s a rare enough thing to see someone so determined, so brave and bright, so fierce and yet so understanding and so forgiving at such a young age, let alone so completely devoted to such an unimpeachable cause.  Malala Yousafzai (and please consider clicking on her name to donate to her charitable organization for girls’ education) stands as a stunning example of why it is so vitally important to support that cause, and a crushing rebuke to those in every part of the world who believe that women’s rights should be eliminated at worst or minimized and ridiculed at best.  She is a glorious echo of what Frederick Douglass said about the importance of unity and cooperation over a century ago:

“I would unite with anybody to do right, and with nobody to do wrong.”

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