Malala Yousafzai

The High Cost of Education

I’ve not been able to stop thinking about Malala Yousafzai all day. You’ve probably heard of her — in the news or in any one or many of the other blogs rightly dedicating time and thought and column inches to this brave young girl.

The story resonates with me at this moment for a host of reasons. First and foremost, because it should. Because I’m human and this is an outrage.

But also the story resonates because through the strange coincidence of time and life it answers on its own three different, totally disperate conversations I have had in the last twenty-four hours.

I have daughters. Inquisitive daughters. Outspoken daughters. Intelligent and funny and beautiful and perfect daughters. One of them is eleven — the age Malala was when she initially spoke out against Taliban restrictions on girls’ education. Another of my daughters is 14 — the age Malala was yesterday when she was shot in the head for having had the gall to be inquisitive and desirous of a proper education.

For the handful of you who have not read this story and don’t know the current state of things, at the time of this writing, young Malala is alive. My oldest daughter is 16 — a birthday I hope Malala will get to celebrate someday.

And so, of course, today Malala is each of my daughters in turn; and I cry for her father, whose pain I shamelessly thank God I can only imagine.

The story also intersects a lesson I have with my students every semester, and which I referenced only yesterday. I perform an exercise with them where I invite them all (but individually by gender) to offer any and every euphemism they can think of to refer to the other sex. I usually wait until we are far enough into the semester that they are comfortable pressing some boundaries and won’t be quite as inhibited in their response.

I start with the women — by which I mean, I give women the first opportunity to tell me the words they use to refer to men. Almost every time, there is a brief pause before, Asshole. There are then giggles.

Sometimes the first word isn’t ‘asshole’. Sometimes it’s, Dick. Either way, once the floodgates are open, the aggression issues forth and the every slur imaginable follows. Some, I must admit, are quite witty. And all beget a nervous laughter and titillation at getting to say out loud — in class — what they feel in their hearts.

Then it’s the men’s turn. Bitch. Priss. Dyke. Usually the c-word follows (which is evidently too distasteful to too many for me to print here, but you surely know what I mean).

This goes on until I point out that I only asked for euphemisms. They didn’t need to be negative. The point of the lesson is about the way words — even words we don’t really mean — affect our discourse.

I referred back to this exercise yesterday whilst making the point that the vast majority of the insults are feminine in nature. If a man is unliked, he’s as likely to be a douche as an asshole. And if he isn’t perceived to be man ‘enough’, well, take your pick: is he a pussy, a woman, a girl, a little bitch, or that c-word I’m politely refraining from using?

Yet if a woman is somehow failing to win our approval, she’s not a dick. Nor, really, is she likely to be an asshole. She’ll be a bitch — probably a fucking bitch. Or, if she’s really won our disapproval, she’ll be referred to as that organ of a woman’s body from which new life is produced but which is apparently a very dirty, nasty, hateful thing — and which is sometimes referenced by a word beginning with the letter “c”.

What is so wrong with being a woman?

And what has this to do with Malala Yousafzai?

It ties in to Malala because at one point today I thought to myself that it must have took serious balls to take on the Taliban at the age of eleven.

I immediately regretted what was meant as a compliment.

Because, she doesn’t have balls. If she did, she’d be allowed to learn how to factor an equation.

She’s a girl. And that’s the point. I apologize — and not only to women — for even thinking to compliment this young woman by bestowing any masculinity onto her heroic humanity. My God, how I wish even one percent of the world’s population — balls or no balls — had the spine to stand tall as this child has done.

Lastly, this story resonates, resounds, as an answer to a question my 14 year old asked me only yesterday. We were discussing Lincoln (the president, not the movie), and she pondered the qualifications necessary for one’s death to be recorded in history as an assassination, as opposed to your run-off-the-mill ‘murder’. With that genuine wonder only kids and comedians can really perfect, she asked “What kind of awesome do you have to be to be assassinated?”

It’s a great question. I’m proud of my kid. But through no fault of her own, the normal of her world includes a classroom in which she is part of the 51% majority. In other parts of the world, normal is a teenage girl (through no fault of her own) being told by men with guns that a question in her head — any question in her head — is enough to get her put on a hit list precisely because she is a teenage girl.

Some stand up to bullies who call them names. Others stand up to the Taliban.

That’s pretty awesome.

Which leads me, abruptly, to the simple question: How weak must you be, how insecure your beliefs, that you and they are threatened by a (then) eleven year old girl’s desire to learn math?

As my head spins round and round, one last thought manages to swim to the surface.

We have an election coming up. The politicians and the pundits will shout their ideas and ideals. The news anchors will announce the latest polls like the running of the 12:07 at Saratoga Springs. The citizens will be overwhelmed with ads approved by the candidates and ultimately about half the eligible voters will line up and vote.

You may call it a dysfunctional democracy, but blood will not be running in the streets. Missiles will not be launched.

Do this: take a lesson from a 14 year old Pakistani girl with a thirst for knowledge.

Stop, and pay attention. Listen. Learn.

It takes more than balls.

It takes backbone