Malala Yousafzai, shot and wounded in Pakistan for being an advocate of education for young women when she was 15, has emerged as an international symbol of the challenges that still exist in gender equality in education and opportunities.
Perhaps the value of the full development of women in a non-patriarchal society, of the wisdom that they contribute to resolving the conflicts of the world, can best be exemplified by what Yousafzai recently told President Obama in a private meeting: "I thanked President Obama for the United States' work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees," she said in a statement following the Oval Office meeting. "I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education, it will make a big impact."
Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK has confronted Obama publicly about drone attacks, but few male politicians or advocates have challenged the president to his face. For a now 16-year-old female Pakistani, nearly martyred for her advocacy, to warn the president of the United States that his drone assassinations were counterproductive - and that it would be a better outcome to educate instead of killing Pakistanis - is proof in itself of the value of ensuring that young women in all parts of the world have full access to explore their intellectual capabilities.
I Am Malala, the full story of Malala Yousafzai's heroic commitment to education for girls (written with Christina Lamb of The Sunday Times), can be obtained directly from Truthout for a contribution of $35.
Malala Yousafzai dedicates her book "to all the girls who have faced injustice and been silenced. Together, we shall be heard." Yousafzai, with the full support of her school principal father, decided she would not quietly be prohibited from attending school, which was becoming an increasing likelihood as the Taliban has been making encroachments into the Swat valley of Pakistan, where her family was living.
In a Washington Post review of I Am Malala, author Maria Arana states the importance of Yousafzi's cause:
Ask social scientists how to end global poverty, and they will tell you: Educate girls. Capture them in that fleeting window between the ages of 10 and 14, give them an education, and watch a community change: Per capita income goes up, infant mortality goes down, the rate of economic growth increases, the rate of HIV/AIDS infection falls. Child marriage becomes less common, as does child labor. Educated mothers tend to educate their children. They tend to be more frugal with family money. Last year, the World Bank reckoned that Kenya's illiterate girls, if educated, could boost that country's economy by $27 billion in the course of a lifetime.Whether an emerging nation likes it or not, its girls are its greatest resource.
That possibility is obviously a threat to many men who have been at the top of the patriarchal pyramid for centuries. Eventually, a Taliban gunman shot Yousafzai point blank in the face for her outspokenness (including a blog for the BBC Urdu service - although written anonymously, it was possibly known by many in her area that she was the author).
She survived. And through reconstructive surgery in Birmingham, England, her face was restored. Significantly, her profound insatiable love of knowledge remained fully intact because the bullet didn't impact the parts of the brain affecting cognitive ability.
Much has been made of her being the youngest person nominated for the Noble Prize (although she did not receive it this year), of her speaking to the UN and receiving other honors. (She even left Jon Stewart speechless with her invocation of enlightened pacifism in the face of possible death.)
Some argue that the United States could end up using her as a "celebrity" propaganda tool to continue the war in Afghanistan and the northwest region of Pakistan. But Yousafzai is no supporter of violence - and, as noted earlier, tactfully lectured Obama on the subject. What she denounces - directly and fearlessly - is the ongoing attempt at the suppression of millions and millions of girls in the world to confine them to servile, ignorant roles.
As Yousafzai exhorted at the UN: "Let us pick up our books and our pens," I said. "They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world."
Later she writes in I Am Malala:
Today we all know education is our basic right. Not just in the West; Islam too has given us that right. Islam says every girl and every boy should go to school. In the Quran it is written. God wants us to have knowledge. He wants us to know why the sky is blue and about oceans and stars.
It is a big challenge that lies before her.
Because the problem is self-perpetuating.
"We have almost 50 million illiterate adults, two-thirds of whom are women, like my own mother," Yousafzai revealed.
I Am Malala fills the gap between mother and daughter with a fully told story of a love of learning and bravery. Political powers may try to use her as a pawn for one strategic purpose or another, but she is nobody's fool. She is a proud young woman, Pashtun, follower of Islam, Pakistani and champion for the power of schooling that nurtures and enlightens.
She ends the book affirming her independence: "I am Malala. My world has changed but I have not."