Malala Yousafzai is 14 years old, and so is my daughter. Malala means “sad and melancholic”. Imani means “faith”. Both girls are beautiful, intelligent, and well spoken. They have much in common. They have one important thing not common to both of them.
Malala just had a bullet removed from her head.
Malala dared to speak out about wanting an education and her beliefs that education should be her birthright as much as it is a boy’s. Malala dared to ask for something that my daughter often complains about — school. She took a bullet because she spoke out and the Taliban issued at fatwa — ordering her assassination.
My daughter has been in school since she was 2 1/2 years old. She’s now a freshman in high school. Over the last 12 years, she has grown intellectually, spiritually, creatively, artistically, and in many other ways. She has travelled the world and seen some of the world’s greatest works of art. She has taken her education farther than many girls in this country are able to, and I am thankful for every opportunity she’s gotten over the years. School has not always been a cakewalk for Imani, but she has done well overall and she has a bright future ahead of her in college and beyond. She comes to the table with the cards stacked in her favor.
My educational journey was similar to my daughter’s, but I did not have the support and resources that she does. I did, however, achieve a rather high level of education (a Masters degree from Juilliard) and I made a decent career for myself afterward. Clearly, I have made life better for my kids than it was for me, which is the goal of most parents.
My Grandma had an eighth grade education. She was raised poor on a farm in the South. Grandma once told me that at age three she was put out in the field with a sack around her neck. “Pick that, leave that alone” were the instructions she received. At five, she was “promoted” to the kitchen, where she learned the skills that she later used as a domestic, and eventually used in our kitchen before big holiday family meals. My grandma’s dream for me was that I go to college and leave behind the ghetto as she had left behind the farm. College was spoken like a mantra, and I had no choice other than that destiny. It was a lot of pressure sometimes, but I thanked her for it later. I credit her with my success and for the drive and determination to achieve a better life for my kids (my girl as well as my boy). I wish she’d lived to see all that my family has achieved. I know she would’ve been proud of me. That’s all I ever wanted.
So, where does Malala come in?
My grandmother was taken out of school because she was needed at home, and because her family saw little point to educating girls. Girls were meant for the kitchen, and later, as wives, for the production of children (read: sons). Girls were valued for their beauty because it would increase their chances of marrying well. Girls helped mom with younger children, cleaned house, and cooked for the men who had worked all day. Her life was, in many ways, like the one that Malala and girls like her all over the world live everyday. Our country is not as far from treating its girls like Malala as it would like to think. Still, my grandmother wouldn’t have been shot for asking to attend high school (though, perhaps, beaten and ridiculed).
I don’t believe that the more “traditional” cultures of the world should be Americanized to improve them. Our world benefits from the differences between people: our different cuisines, religions, languages, and customs. Yet, there are many cultures that still practice traditions that are oppressive and take away basic human rights. The education of girls and women should not be a privilege, but rather a given. Women do not flee from tradition. They flee from oppression. They flee from those who would take away their rights and keep them as second class citizens. I believe that the men of these cultures fear what will become of their society if women are educated and allowed to do the things that are now prohibited. If those prohibitions were not oppressive, I doubt there would be quite so much fear. Women are given very little credit for their common sense. We just want the same chances and opportunities as men. We don’t want to be men, and we certainly don’t want to be the sex and power crazed whores that some men think we will become if we are not kept ignorant, housebound, and pregnant. We are more than breeding machines, and we just want a chance to show the world what we have to offer.
When I look at Malala’s beautiful face in pictures, I cry knowing that this girl could be my daughter. She is everyone’s daughter and we need to hear her voice and the voices of all the Malalas that risk their lives to read a book or learn to write. I think of my own daughter’s beautiful face and I thank God that she was born here and not someplace where she would be denied her rights. I think of my grandmother and her dreams for my future — because in America things like that are possible. I am two generations away from poverty and one away from the ghetto. America is not perfect, but if I am any indication at all, there are possibilities and there is progress.
I hope that Malala’s story will open the eyes of the rest of the world and begin a serious outcry for justice for all the world’s Malalas. I pray that she will not die and become a martyr, but that she’ll live to see the changes she had the courage to ask for. I hope that girls like Malala will speak up and demand justice, despite the risks. I pray that I can do something in my lifetime to help these girls achieve their dreams, like my grandmother did for me. Do not be sad and melancholy, Malala. Take a page from my girl’s name, Imani, and have faith. The world has heard your cry, and we will respond because justice denied to one is justice denied to all
Peace be with you, Malala. Be well and rest easy.