Malala Yousafzai: Unending Bravery, Unstoppable Activism

malala_associated press
Courtesy of Associated Press

“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.

Buy I Am Malala at Powell’s, Abebooks or Amazon.

Watch the trailer for Malala’s documentary He Named Me Malala here.

Watch Malala’s excellent/adorable/super entertaining interview with Jon Stewart here.


Madam C.J. Walker and the Power of the Self-Crafted Narrative

madam cj walker

So I’m behind in my posts about Women’s History Month because of this infectious disease called “life”. Even though March is over, I want to continue with this series because every month should be Women’s History Month, amirite? Also, my next post is about Madam C.J. Walker, who was great at not following the rules that would’ve only served to hold her back, so there’s my roundabout justification and not-so-subtle introduction to this post.

As I was deciding what women to research for this series, I made an initial list that I was pretty happy with. It included women from government, an activist for education and the first computer programmer. But pretty soon, I realized I was missing something: racial diversity. Sure, these women were all from different countries, but three out of the four of them were white. The very point of this series was to highlight women who are often overlooked in the annals of history and also in the present, and here I was passively ignoring the contributions of non-white women. After I caught myself, I took steps to make sure my list was more diverse. And that was how I came upon Madam C.J. Walker.

In Madam Walker, I had a perfect example of a non-white woman who made a huge impact. Despite her achievements, I still knew next to nothing about her. Madam Walker’s name sounded familiar, though I couldn’t say why. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Indiana and learned about her in my elementary school textbook, though I wouldn’t be surprised if she was overlooked. To this day, it’s easier for a white woman to get the credit she deserves for her work. Women of color have layers of prejudice to work through before they can achieve the same recognition.

This was certainly the case for Madam Walker. In A’lelia Bundles’ book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, Bundles writes about her great-great grandmother with a kind of awe. Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove, had the kind of classic up-from-your-bootstraps story that Americans love. Born to former slaves in Louisiana in 1867, Breedlove initially made a living as a washerwoman for wealthy white families, a common occupation for African American women at the time. By the age of twenty, she was a mother and a widow. The uncertainty facing Breedlove and her daughter, Lelia (who later went by A’lelia and is the author’s namesake), was immense, but soon Breedlove became part of a growing industry that would change her life: hair care for black women.

After initially becoming an apprentice to Annie Pope Turnbo, Breedlove struck out on her own. This coincided with her marriage to Charles J. Walker, whose name she took and stylized with a French prefix. With a tireless work ethic and relentless determination to build relationships, Madam Walker would spend the rest of her life growing her beauty empire and making a huge philanthropic and cultural impact.

So those are the facts. But as I was reading Bundles’ account of Madam Walker’s life, what struck me just as often as her cut and dry achievements were the gaps in information about her life. Despite how meticulous Bundles is with her research, she’s still forced to make leaps when describing Madam Walker’s early life. Bundles is up front about this struggle, and, most interestingly, she seems to make an argument for why there is so little known about this time in Walker’s life: that Walker wanted it that way for the benefit of her business.

It sounds obvious, especially in the age of branding. But by hiding away certain parts of her past and spreading a narrative about herself that may or may not have been true – and does it really matter either way? – she was able to take agency over her own story. Something about this is fascinating in its daring and power. I’m a firm believer in the idea that parts of history have been tailored to suit a particular group’s narrative, meaning that we have to examine the fossils firsthand to get the actual story (see Kameron Hurley’s incredible Hugo-winning essay for more on this idea). Luckily, we have Bundles to sift through the facts and present us with this story.

What we get is a tale of a woman who managed to dodge submersion under the stories of whites and men, at least in her own time, by taking charge of the way people thought of her. She erased her three husbands from her life – including the one whose name she made famous – and she established her identity as an independent entrepreneur, leaving marriage at the wayside as she amassed her wealth. Walker also enthralled crowds with retellings of a prophetic dream from God that gave her the formula for her hair-growth concoction. After she gained enough influence, she used the power of her story to create ties with prominent African Americans, including Booker T. Washington, whose initial reluctance to take her seriously turned into respect for her business acumen. By the end of her life, Madame Walker had become one of the most influential African Americans of her time, thanks to her impact on the lives of women through access to beauty products and employment opportunities.

As someone who loves to write, I believe in the power of stories to bring about change. Not only did Madam Walker create a narrative that made her successful — she helped many other black women become more confident and independent. No matter your skin color or even your gender, Madam Walker’s vision and perseverance set the bar high for what can be achieved in a lifetime.

Buy Bundles’ On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker at Powell’s, Abebooks or Amazon.

Elizabeth I: Power and Singlehood in the Face of Patriarchy


Though the sex to which I belong is considered weak, you will nevertheless find me a rock that bends to no wind.

When Queen Elizabeth I was born, her father was disappointed. Henry VIII had been hoping for a son, especially since he had literally created a new Church of England (nowadays known as the Protestant Church) to marry Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. The irony here is that his daughter would go on to become one of the most successful monarchs in England’s history, but that possibility wouldn’t have crossed King Henry’s mind. Not only did he make her an illegitimate child after he decided to execute Anne Boleyn for treason and adultery (he would later reverse this decision and make her his heir by law after his son Edward and first daughter Mary), but Elizabeth was a woman. The odds facing a successful regime under a queen rather than a king seem, to me, like they were next to insurmountable. I say “next to” because, remarkably, Elizabeth did it. And because I wanted to know how she did it, I chose to read Alison Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I as the first of four biographies on significant women in history for Women’s History Month.

There are a million things I could focus on in this post, because, as it turns out, Elizabeth was absolutely fascinating. I decided that her decision to never marry despite the enormous pressure put on her and all other women in her day is very worthy of some attention. I believe the reason her legacy was able to shine through as it does is partly because she had no king to obscure it — not because she would have allowed her husband to have any real influence over her mind, but because that’s what history tends to do to women in positions of power.

According to Weir, Elizabeth first said she would never marry just after the execution of her father’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. There is certainly reason to believe that her father’s infamous tendency to get rid of wife after wife may have had something to do with Elizabeth’s aversion to the idea of marriage. However, as I read Weir’s book, she makes it clear that this was far from Elizabeth’s only consideration. If Elizabeth was anything, she was logical, and she knew the sacrifices that would come with marriage. She was firmly the master of her own mind, and in her time, to marry a man meant to be subservient. Even if her hypothetical husband accepted her ideas and wish to rule, she still had to face all of Parliament and her Secretary of State, William Cecil, who believed that a man should be in charge of matters of state. Remaining unmarried as queen guaranteed that she would be seen as the sole authority on England’s welfare, and that was exactly how she wanted it.

Most feminists – and when I say feminists, I refer to both women and men – will agree that Elizabeth I’s stalwart decision to remain single was badass in a way that’s difficult for us to comprehend, far removed as we are from sixteenth century England. Equally astounding is that the topic of marriage is still a sensitive one today. There are still many people who scratch their heads at unmarried women, assuming that all of us naturally want to find a husband or wife and that there must be something wrong with the ones who choose to stay single or cohabitate with their partners without tying the knot (and I won’t get into the double standard this represents). And on the opposite side of that argument, there are people who believe marriage is an archaic institution, and that women who credit marriage or family as some of the best decisions of their lives are threatening to take us back to London circa 1573 (see this recent reaction to Beyoncé stating that Blue Ivy is her greatest accomplishment and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about).

It’s certainly better to have two sides to this argument rather than one. But looking at Elizabeth’s example and at the times she almost decided to marry (though I think some of her prevarication was just her playing with the Commons the way a person teases a cat with a laser pointer), I can’t help but wonder if sometimes she was inclined towards marriage but knew it would have irreversible effects on her rule. I believe we need to work towards a world where women can choose to make the lives they want for themselves without worrying about whether or not people will condescend to them for their decisions. I realize that this is a broad statement, and I think there are problems with the SUPPORT ALL WOMEN NO MATTER WHAT mentality. But those problems are trumped by the need to create a culture in which women are not demonized for remaining unmarried and childless, but in which they can also marry and have children without others assuming they’ve given up their autonomy or are simply fulfilling expectations. In the meantime, let’s do as Elizabeth did and use the power we have to continue down the paths we choose, throwing out flirtatious smiles and trotting on toes as we go.

Buy Weir’s The Life of Elizabeth I at Powell’s, Abebooks or Amazon.

Stay tuned next week for a post on Madam C.J. Walker.