If there is one benefit or silver lining to come out of the savage story of what happened to Malala Yousafzai, is that now you know who Malala Yousafzai is.
A brief summary: Malala is a 14 year-old Pakistani school girl, who spent her free time agitating for women’s education in her country. About a week ago, the Pakistani Taliban, unhappy with her Godless quest to promote education for women, which that group of religious zealots views as heresy, stopped her school bus and shot her in the head.
Amazingly, she survived and is recuperating in a U.K. hospital.
Here’s a hint: if a 14-year-old blogger is so threatening to your ideology that you deem it necessary to shoot her in the head, you probably don’t have very good ideas. Yet in committing this absurd, vicious act of violence against a child and trying to justify it on religious grounds, this group that took over the Swat Valley plays into the hands of Malala’s allies across the world, some of whom include such distinguished people as Angelina Jolie, myself, and anyone who is not a total misogynistic asshole. The world gains a prominent, undeniably powerful spokesperson for women’s education, and the Taliban likely does more to marginalize itself than drone missiles ever have.
I’m a big believer in the “Half the Sky” thesis. I refer to the must-read book by New York Times writers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, which has since become a PBS special and its own movement. Basically, the authors explain how far the world could go toward encouraging economic growth and social progress as well as alleviating poverty, terrorism, and general misery in the developing world by emphasizing gender equality and women’s education. They make a compelling argument and back it up with an onslaught of statistics, research, and stories.
Part of the problem in the way we’ve approached the battle against terrorist groups like the Taliban is that under administrations both Bush and Obama, we assume we can blow up enough of these people without ever addressing the underlying issues that create their sense of injustice and lead them to extreme ideologies that are at once protests against imperialism and modernity. Female birth rates are so low in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan and attitudes so grossly misogynist that most of the young men end up unmarried, uneducated, frustrated, and socially isolated. Extreme religious views offer an attractive range of villains on whom to blame their problems (although certainly it doesn’t help when a missile comes zooming into your village and blows up your brother/cousin/father/etc.).
The promise of Malala then is not just for young women but for young men trapped in cultural paradigms that teach them there is something unnatural or sinful about women. And this isn’t just in the Middle East. Western thought and many sects of Christianity remain shamefully hostile toward one of the single greatest tools of female empowerment in human civilization: family planning in the form of contraception.
The Republican Party has disgraced itself this election season with its stance on "religious freedom" that seeks to deny contraception to women. With its still vast global influence over the lives of individuals, the Catholic Church, as far as I’m concerned, is committing a crime against humanity with its medieval stance on the issue, particularly in the developing world.
Obviously, Pakistan won’t turn into Studio 54 overnight, and there are likely more Malalas on the way. But she puts a face to an issue the way Rosa Parks did. She tells a story of defiance the way Ghandi did. She puts this issue in front of everyone’s face, from the mountains of the Swat Valley to the halls of power in Washington D.C. Because the inevitable march of human progress has shown that when women become empowered—with education, with suffrage, with the ability to plan their families—they reshape the societies in which they live.