She described her return to school as “the happiest moment,” exuding sheer joy at the prospect of once again having her “books and bags.” In an interview in Britain five months after a failed assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen in Pakistan, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai spoke of her desire to study politics and law so she can “learn how to change the world” and help girls pursue an education. Learn? This remarkable young woman can teach the world.
As she spoke, her sparkle testified to the power of human resiliency. And let’s not forget her two courageous schoolmates, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, who were also shot that fateful day. They remain in Pakistan, threatened with violence, yet determined to go to school.
Malala’s return sends a powerful message to those who destroy schools (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and books (in Mali): Your brutish ignorance will never extinguish our desire to know more about humanity and the world around us. No doubt, these religious extremists can’t fathom the irony of destroying symbols of literacy, ostensibly in the name of a faith whose very first command was “read” and whose holy text (the Koran) means “The Reading.”
Malala’s actions send an even greater message to girls and women everywhere: Your innate desire to learn is noble, and it should be prized and nurtured and, where barriers arise, you should fight to pursue your dream.
This message has been resonating with Muslim women throughout the world, percolating through social media, as they collectively organize, inspire and act. As 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman told an Ottawa audience last fall, women in the Middle East have taken part in three revolutions during the Arab spring: revolution against oppressive governments, revolution against oppressive cultural traditions and revolution against unjust fatwas – all aimed at freeing women to pursue their legitimate aspirations.
This is evident in Egypt, where women played a prominent role during the Arab Spring. They took authorities to task for humiliating “virginity tests.” And many oppose the Muslim Brotherhood’s scathing critique of a United Nations draft declaration calling for an end to violence against women, in which they condemned the “full sharing of roles within the family between men and women such as: spending, child care and home chores” or “giving wives full rights to file legal complaints against husbands accusing them of rape or sexual harassment.” They also are courageously fighting against sexual violence in the public sphere and regressive attitudes that blame women for rape.
For 30 years, Syrian preacher Houda al-Habash has been advocating the idea of education as a form of worship, and documentary filmmakers Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix have captured her efforts in The Light in Her Eyes. Female students attending her Koran school in Damascus are encouraged to develop a love for reading, since “anyone who reads expands her mind.” Ms. al-Habash’s efforts have given rise to a movement in which women are reclaiming space within the mosque, and reclaiming their faith while challenging tradition.
The dynamic struggle against the status quo by Muslim women overseas provides a model for Muslim women living in the West. Far too many Muslim institutions in Europe and North America marginalize women by refusing to treat them as equal partners. Their input is rarely sought, their perspectives rarely solicited at conferences. Muslim student groups at some universities forbid women from running for leadership.
As Sally Armstrong writes in Ascent of Women, education is key to female empowerment. Muslim women need not discard their faith nor passively accept male-centric interpretations, but rather use education to learn for themselves, think critically and challenge the status quo. Anne Sofie Roald, a Norwegian convert fluent in classical Arabic, has done so in her eye-opening book Women in Islam: The Western Experience.
Let’s take a cue from Malala Yousafzai and learn how to change the world.