The Courage of a Girl

Forward Magazine - - Letters -

Nearly 11 years ago, flushed with what we thought was vic­tory over the Tal­iban, then-first lady Laura Bush led a noble cam­paign to high­light the poverty, vi­o­lence, poor health and il­lit­er­acy en­dured by the women of Afghanistan. “That regime is now in re­treat across much of the coun­try, and the peo­ple of Afghanistan, es­pe­cially women, are re­joic­ing,” she said in a Novem­ber 17, 2011, ra­dio ad­dress. “Afghan women know through hard ex­pe­ri­ence what the rest of the world is dis­cov­er­ing: The bru­tal op­pres­sion of women is a cen­tral goal of the ter­ror­ists.” Sadly, it still is. As the dra­matic story of Malala Yousafzai il­lus­trates, the Tal­iban are not con­tent with con­tin­u­ing to make mis­er­able the lives of women in Afghanistan, where just this sum­mer a woman was pub­licly ex­e­cuted af­ter be­ing ac­cused of adul­tery. They are also ter­ror­iz­ing the neigh­bor­ing Swat prov­ince in Pak­istan, bar­ring girls from at­tend­ing school, blow­ing up class­rooms and re­sort­ing to brazen steps when any­one dare dis­agree.

Brazen, as in try­ing to murder an out­spo­ken 14-year-old girl on the streets in front of her friends sim­ply be­cause she elo­quently ar­gued her right to go to school.

Malala, now re­ceiv­ing med­i­cal care in Eng­land, where her con­di­tion re­mains crit­i­cal, is a girl of un­com­mon courage. She was raised by her equally coura­geous fa­ther, who ran pri­vate schools for girls in their town and de­fied the Tal­iban at ev­ery turn. “I have the right of ed­u­ca­tion,” Malala said in a 2011 in­ter­view with CNN. “I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to go to mar­ket. I have the right to speak up.”

With her elo­quent English and a cheru­bic face now wounded by gun­shots, Malala has be­come the sym­bol of gen­der vi­o­lence in her coun­try, a ral­ly­ing cry, an un­wit­ting celebrity of sorts — the Anne Frank of Pak­istan, as Laura Bush called her in a re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post col­umn. But it is a mis­take to fo­cus only on her. In July, an­other Pash­tun woman, Farida Afridi, a women’s rights worker, was killed by un­known gun­men on her way to her of­fice.

“The sto­ries of Malala and Farida de­pict the broader, and frankly con­fus­ing, strug­gle in Pak­istan be­tween pro­gres­sives and ex­trem­ists,” wrote Pir Zubair Shah, the Ed­ward R. Mur­row press fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions. Con­cerned gov­ern­ments and NGOs must tread care­fully, mind­ful of the vast re­gional and class dif­fer­ences that be­devil this un­ruly coun­try, where a woman has been elected prime min­is­ter but where lit­er­acy among women in ru­ral ar­eas is as low as 7%. Ac­cord­ing to UNICEF, girls from poor fam­i­lies in ru­ral ar­eas of Pak­istan re­ceive on av­er­age just over a year of ed­u­ca­tion, while boys from wealthy ur­ban fam­i­lies re­ceive more than nine years of school­ing.

“It’s in­cum­bent on all of us to en­sure that ev­ery child has ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion,” Caryl Stern, pres­i­dent and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, told the For­ward. Her or­ga­ni­za­tion knows the risks in that sim­ple as­ser­tion: Per­se­veranda So, a 52-year-old woman from the Phillip­ines who served as chief of ed­u­ca­tion in UNICEF’s Is­lam­abad of­fice, died in June 2009 along with other hu­man­i­tar­ian work­ers in a ho­tel bomb­ing in Peshawar. That trou­bled city was also where Malala once led a del­e­ga­tion of chil­dren’s rights ac­tivists, spon­sored by UNICEF, that made pre­sen­ta­tions to pro­vin­cial politi­cians.

“This should not be a story about murder. It is a story about ed­u­ca­tion. Eq­uity in ed­u­ca­tion is a tool to in­ter­rupt the cy­cle of poverty, bul­ly­ing, hate. Put a girl in school and she will marry later, sur­vive longer, be bet­ter nour­ished, pro­vide bet­ter for her chil­dren,” Stern em­pha­sized. “The sad thing is that the world has left it to a child to fight that bat­tle, when we all should be do­ing it.”

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