Malala Yousafzai Stands Up for Us All
by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
There are a couple of old saws that I was taught as a young journalist, which I continue to pass on to my media studies students now.
And another: one powerful human interest story is worth a million statistics.
We saw both of these principles in action with the news of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls “one of the world’s most persuasive advocates for girls’ education.”
Everyone probably knows by now of how the Taliban viciously shot Malala in the neck as punishment for her outspoken insistence that girls should be allowed — and indeed, encouraged — to go to school, just like boys.
She is now the face of millions of girls worldwide who are denied the chance to get an education and empower themselves and their communities.
Last week the Times also reported that in Africa, unprecedented wealth is being generated by the efforts of a rising tide of entrepreneurs — many of them women.
UN Women, formerly known as UNIFEM, has argued for years that by educating a girl, you help her whole family, including the children she will one day bear.
After all, as the Chinese say, “Women hold up half the sky.”
I am glad to see that Pakistanis have come together to reject the extremist politics of the gunmen who shot Malala.
We should all light a candle for her today as she is flown to the West for more treatment, and pray that this brave girl survives the attack and returns to the fray to serve as a defiant model for all girls, whose instinctive human desire for education will not be extinguished so easily.
In the Christian tradition, Eve takes the blame for the fall from Paradise, and here in the U.S., too, we can see many examples of strong women being sharply checked: for instance, in the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords or the mocking of Hillary Clinton for wearing pants suits and acting tough.
The story of Malala Yousafzai is one particularly emblematic story among many that could be told, of women and girls who dare to stand up to patriarchal power, and learn quickly that such defiance has its price.
Lately we’ve been seeing a steady drumbeat of reports — most of them disapproving — of how women are becoming more successful in school and in careers, threatening traditional male dominance in the public sphere.
Maybe it’s time for a reminder that feminism was never about dominance — it was and is about equality.
What’s so threatening about that?
I’m sorry, but real men don’t shoot 14-year-old girls under any circumstances.
To me a real man is the one who encourages his children, regardless of their gender, to stay in school and work hard to be prepared to step out into a future that is sure to be challenging.
A real man applauds his wife’s successes, and stands by her side when things are rough.
Real women do the same.
The truth is that gender is just another one of those culturally conditioned differences, like eye shape or skin tone, that fade to irrelevance before the profound reality of our human similarities.
Having unlocked the secrets of the genome, we now know that human beings are genetically 99% the same as field mice.
Isn’t that enough to convince us that men and women are only different in the most superficial ways?
Sure, women can bear children; men are more muscular. But our brains are close to identical, and our hearts are the same.
Our spirits, freed of our physical bodies, know no differences.
It’s time to soar above the petty infighting of gender, and work together for the good of all.
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Ph.D., teaches comparative literature, media studies, and human rights with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and directs the annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and the new Citizen Journalism Project at WBCR-LP. She is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, and blogs at Transition Times.