Malala. The name itself is lyrical.
It falls from the tongue with a soothing cadence, despite the grim circumstances under which the world met 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai.
She’s the Pakistani child the Taliban ordered assassinated. Shot in the head as she was returning home from school, Malala is still alive but critically injured. As the headlines worldwide have reported, she was targeted for vocally demanding what should be available to all girls: an education.
Watching videos of this gentle girl speaking about her desire for education, it’s hard to know how much her motivation to stand up to the Taliban came from within and how much was prompted by her equally outspoken father, who operates a school for girls. But this is clear: She is a child raising herself far beyond her years to meet horrible realities. Children tend to do that when cruel adults put them in horrendous situations.
And denying education is among the most longstanding injustices done to women — one that also happens to undercut the economic well-being of entire countries. The Taliban are perhaps the world’s most notorious oppressors of women. (They dominate not merely much of Afghanistan but also Malala’s home region, the Swat Valley of Pakistan.) They are not, however, the only force of backwardness in the world that believes morality and honor require keeping half of society’s members uneducated and subjugated. It’s a global problem.
In that way, Malala is representative of an estimated 41 million girls in the world who are denied a primary education. Only 30 percent of all girls are enrolled in secondary school.
Education protects girls. It shields them from marrying too young, and from having children too young and without planning. It protects them from being forced by poverty into sex trafficking and other acts that are dangerous to their health.
This is as true in America as it is in Africa, India, Cambodia and the Swat Valley.
The worst oppression of women flourishes when many members of society — fathers, brothers, even women themselves — buy into traditional patriarchy. Religion, law, ingrained cultural norms — and, of course, armed thugs — all act to enforce it.