“Once I had asked God for one or two extra inches in height, but instead he made me as tall as the sky, so high that I could not measure myself.”
Malala Yousafzai is an outspoken advocate for girls’ education and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Many people know her story: After speaking out against the Taliban’s efforts to keep girls from attending school in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, she was shot point blank by one of their followers on her way home from school. She went on to make a full recovery, and she redirected the attention she received after the attack to further the cause of obtaining education for every girl around the world.
Yousafzai is one of the most inspiring advocates on the international scene. She’s also the first women I’ve written about in this series inspired by Women’s History Month that’s a modern figure rather than a historical one. With the help of Christina Lamb, Yousafzai wrote a memoir of her life up to age 16 titled I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. The book tells the reader about Malala’s family, her friends and how she became an advocate amidst the repression brought to her valley. Her voice on the pages sounds vivid and authentic, and the occasional awkward turns of phrase sound characteristic not of someone whose first language isn’t English, but of a young teenager, reminding the reader how much Malala (and many other girls like her) has endured at such a young age.
Despite the focus on many aspects of Malala’s life in the memoir, she writes with a few particular goals. Her desire to draw more attention to the cause of equal education is obvious, but she also takes time to write about Islam for her (presumably western and non-Muslim) audience. In today’s political climate, even mentioning Islam seems like a risk that many people wouldn’t be willing to take. But Malala has never shied away from taking risks – this is the girl who kept speaking out when the Taliban named her as a target and who flat out told Obama that “drone attacks are fueling terrorism” (“It’s not just the Taliban killing children,” she writes). So of course, she’s going to take time to address misunderstandings about her religion, however controversial it may be to do so.
For Malala, Islam is about patience and peace. When Malala speaks of a God, she speaks lovingly and with respect – and it’s a respect that she believes is mutual. “In the Quran it is written, God wants us to have knowledge,” she says, referencing the core principal that drives her. But not all people interpret the Quran in that way. She cites numerous examples of disagreements between what the sacred text says and how the Taliban use it to amass power. As she grows up and her friends were made to stay inside and observe purdah — the practice of women staying out of the sight of men and strangers — Malala questioned whether or not that way of life is what God and the prophet Muhammed would’ve wanted. After all, she says, Muhammed’s first wife was a businesswoman who had been married before, implying that extremist Muslims are misguided in their desire for women to stay out of school and the workplace and to stay married to one man unless that man dies. Throughout the book, Malala and her father get their egalitarian principals in this way: they take a claim from the Taliban and they dissect it according to their own reading of the Quran.
At the same time, Malala defends her own decision to wear a headscarf. She brushed off critics when she eventually “realized that simply having your head uncovered isn’t what makes you modern!” Instead, it’s your ideas and your day-to-day actions that matter. If anyone has proven that to be the case, it’s Malala, whose actions make her much more modern than the westerner who criticizes Islam without first making an effort to learn about it. And if said westerner wanted to know where they should start, I would say they should start right here, with Malala.
Watch the trailer for Malala’s documentary He Named Me Malala here.
Watch Malala’s excellent/adorable/super entertaining interview with Jon Stewart here.