malala day: give a kid a book already

Malala Yousafzai, Claude TRUONG-NGOC

Malala Yousafzai, Claude TRUONG-NGOC

Today is Malala Day, the birthday celebration of Malala Yousafzai, the girl the Taliban shot in the head because she wanted to go to school. That was two years ago, and I am still moved by everything she does. It’s so easy to let life unravel in the face of horrible circumstances, and yet she kept going, keeps going. Her continued existence would have been enough to fight back. Going back to school would have been enough. But Malala skyrocketed, becoming an advocate for girls’ education and a role model for girls all over the world.

Her brave yet peaceful response to the Taliban, and to all who try to hold girls back, is a great lesson for our warmongering leaders, if they took the time to really listen to girls. She doesn’t fight violence with violence; she fights it with education and, more precisely, books. Check out this new video where she explains how books are stronger than bullets.

Malala just turned seventeen. My niece is going on fourteen, and the night before she came to visit us last week my partner and I watched The Punk Singer, the movie about Kathleen Hanna. It got me all fired up about making a mix CD for my niece. (Side note: since the 80s and 90s are back in, will kids start making mix tapes again? Pretty please?) My partner and I started talking about how so much of our values and world views came from the books we found at the library or borrowed from friends, the records we collected from thrift stores and out-of-the way shops, and the zines we traded when we were kids.

My feminist life, for instance, started when I cracked open The Bell Jar and discovered that someone had put my feelings into words. The Color Purple started me on the path to racial and economic justice. When I listened to “Rebel Girl,” Kathleen Hanna was the queen of my world. I devoured these books and records and then I learned about the women behind them, and I finally had an image of the kind of woman I wanted to be.

I wanted to create, to agitate, to express myself. Each book or record was like a window to what could be.

By the end of my niece’s visit, we walked out of a used bookstore, arms piled high with books and CDs. Malala had to face gunmen to get to books; we only had to stroll into a shop the size of a warehouse and take our pick.

Though we in the US are lucky to have access to free public schools, there are a lot of arguments about the state of education here today. Teachers have their hands tied by nonsensical standardized tests that leave children of color further and further behind. To make matters worse, attendance and performance here are affected by everything from street violence and school attacks to dating violence and bullying.

But there is one way we can help young people get at least a little of the education they need. For Malala Day, think about the things that helped you find your way when you were younger, that helped to define who you are today–a book, record, print, poem–and give a copy to a kid.

Books are #strongerthan bullets.

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malala yousafzai: seeing girls differently

I was momentarily disappointed that the Nobel Committee did not award Malala Yousafzai with the Peace Prize. Then I realized that she’s bigger than that prize and certainly bigger than the Nobel Committee’s narrow view of peace work. In fact, I’m glad they didn’t choose her because that would imply that she needs to be chosen by a select group of aging white politicians, that her work is not valuable unless deemed so by an institution. So congratulations, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for, you know, doing your job like the rest of us!

Only fifteen women have won the Peace Prize since it began in 1901, compared to 85 men and 25 organizations. Still, that’s significantly better than the scientific awards, where women aren’t even close to double digits:

  • Chemistry: 2%
  • Physiology or Medicine: 5%
  • Physics: 1%
  • Economics: 1%

Women fare the same in Literature as they do with the Peace Prize, a very modest 12%. Alice Munro is the finest short-story writer around, so I’m always happy to see her work lauded. It’s important that we recognize Munro’s stories of the inner lives of women in quiet towns as worthy of attention, but her Nobel Prize in Literature does not make these numbers go down more easily. The Nobel Committee’s gender problem reveals a long history of ignoring women’s work and devaluing women’s stories.

Take Malala. What more inspiring story could you possibly find? But she’s just a girl. How could they give such an important award to a little girl?

She’s just starting out and has her whole life to win such a prize!

Malala has already done more than any one person could ever be asked to do. When I was sixteen, I was pretty much a self-absorbed twit who thought she knew everything. How many pundits, commentators, and editorial writers have decried the so-called apathy of today’s young people? How many have said, in my day we marched for civil rights, we marched against Vietnam? How many have criticized digital activism as comparatively lazy and wished kids would get up off their butts and do something?

Then comes Malala, who risks her life  to write about education for the BBC. She gets shot in the head, recovers, and holds no grudges. She keeps working to support education. She talks like the Dalai Lama. She wows Jon Stewart with her dedication to peace at all costs, saying about the Taliban’s death threats:

I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’  But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.’

She starts a foundation. She gives a speech to the United Nations Youth Assembly. She writes a book. This girl is unstoppable.

Meh, she’s just a girl.

There’s always been negativity around the world girl. It’s often used to insult or belittle. It’s associated with disempowerment. But maybe being a girl can finally be an amazing thing.

Malala works to ensure that girls all over the world have access to education. Experts now agree that the most important thing organizations and governments can do to promote peace and improve life in low-income populations around the world is to educate girls. Malala’s work gets to the root of why we don’t have peace. And, of course, why so few women have won Nobel Prizes.

At 36, I find myself wanting to be one-tenth as amazing as that sixteen-year-old girl. The Nobel Committee doesn’t deserve her. We don’t deserve her. But she keeps working for us anyway.

This brave Pakistani girl. Let’s appreciate her while we can. Let’s remember that all Pakistani girls–all girls–are potential Malalas. Let’s follow her lead and give them all a chance.