You may not dance.
You may not listen to music or sing. You may not read. You may not leave the house except under certain strict conditions. You may not watch movies or television. You may not aspire. You may not learn.
These are the strictures the Taliban seeks to impose upon women and girls in the places it infests, including the Swat Valley in Pakistan. And when she spoke against those strictures, when she gave interviews and wrote a blog asserting her right to learn and to be, Malala Yousafzai made herself a target of those men, one of whom boarded her school bus last October with a gun and asked, “Who is Malala?” None of the girls spoke, but a few glanced toward Malala and the gunman had his answer. He raised his pistol — it was a Colt .45 — and fired three shots. One bullet went through a girl’s hand. Another ended up in a girl’s right arm. And one went through the socket of Malala’s left eye.
Have you read her new memoir? I Am Malala — the answer to the question the terrorist asked — is the story of her life before, and her miraculous recovery after, that awful event. It is, at one turn, the story of a girl who is startlingly recognizable, who feuds with her best friend, who wishes she were taller, who adores the Twilight movies and the TV show Ugly Betty. And then at the next turn, it is the story of a girl who is, for most of us, starkly unrecognizable, growing up in cramped quarters in a poor and mostly rural country where the customs are unlike ours, and some see the birth of a girl as cause for disappointment.
One hears some ghost of Anne Frank in reading I Am Malala, the flightiness, effervescence and, well … girlishness of an adolescent girl flung once again against the indifferent violence of inhuman men, like flowers hurled against a stone wall.
Did you see Malala last month on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart? She spoke of learning the Taliban had targeted her for death. “I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do, Malala?’ Then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.'” The audience laughed softly, but she wasn’t done. “Then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others that much with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others, but through peace and through dialogue and through education.'”
“Oy,” breathed Stewart. But Malala was still not finished with her imagined dialogue. “Then,” she continued, “I (would) tell him how important education is and that, ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I would tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you. Now, do what you want.'”
And Stewart, who gets paid for his snappy comebacks, sat there with both hands to his mouth, simply stunned. Who could blame him? This child had spoken with a courage and wisdom older than her 16 years. She sounded like Gandhi. She sounded like King.
I have a daughter seven years older than Malala who is coming home this week for Thanksgiving. She’s in school studying for a degree in English, after which she will pursue a master’s in social work. When she launches her career, she’s likely to face barriers to advancement common to American women — lower pay, workplace misogyny, and that ceiling of glass through which she will be able to see the next step but be barred from taking it.
But in this country, no one will shoot her for trying. I am thankful for that.
And not only that. In this week we dedicate to gratitude for God’s blessings, it occurs to me that one of the most precious of them is courage, that greatness of soul that elevates the human spirit and, once in a while, against every temptation to smallness, produces a person who is larger than her very self. Such is the case with this child.
So I am also thankful Malala is in the world.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at email@example.com.)
AFP Photo/Peter Muhly