An Open Letter to Malala Yousafzai

Dear Malala –

Damn, girl.

The world is losing its collective mind right now because you’ve just won the Nobel Peace Prize. There are some people who are making a fuss because you’re the youngest person ever to win, but – hell, excellence isn’t necessarily a thing that the young can’t take part in. Although, that fact did lead to the absolute best statement I’ve ever read in a press release: “Malala will make her first statement on winning the Nobel Peace Prize after school.”

I’ve since heard that statement, and it’s lead me to notice ways that you and I are actually kind of alike. Which is probably a strange thing to hear – on the face of it, it probably doesn’t seem like a 40-something American woman and a 17-year-old Pakistani girl would have much in common.

But I know what it is like to really, really want to learn, and I know what it is like to hear people who think that you shouldn’t, or at least that you shouldn’t learn certain things because you’re a girl.

I did have some advantages you didn’t; I realize that. I was a little girl at a time when the equality of women was actually on an upswing in this country; I was born a few years after a major feminist movement had had its heyday, and one of the albums that me and all my friends listened to[1] taught us that girls and boys can aspire to exactly the same careers, and there was no law that should keep girls from wanting to be truckers or boys from wanting to be stay-at-home-with-the-kids caregivers. And I took that thinking with me to school, where I dove in and tried to learn everything because….

…Well, because I wanted to, basically. The world and the way it worked just fascinated me. I did have people telling me to get an education because it would help with a career, but that was only secondary to my wanting to learn things just because they were interesting. Knowing how children in other countries celebrated their holidays didn’t do a blessed thing for me in school, but it was a cool thing to know. Same too with learning about the different defense systems for Amazonian tree frogs, or the fact that some rocks are formed just by compressing sand over time, or how to say “thank you” in different languages or even just the number of languages there actually were. I wanted to learn it all just for the sheer joy of marveling at it.

And this actually didn’t always go over well at school. My teachers loved it – or at least tolerated it – when I would race through my classwork and then read the class encyclopedia. But the other kids teased me; why did I want to read when I didn’t have to? Why did I care about that stuff?  I didn’t have many friends as a child, and it was all down to my wanting to learn. I didn’t stop, but it got lonely.

Mind you, I am NOT saying that my own social isolation compares in any way to your having been shot in the head by a Talib soldier. You had to face far, far greater obstacles to your learning than I could ever have conceived of, and I was blessed with a school that had much, much more in the way of resources. Even when I was old enough to know that my public school was less-equipped than some richer schools, and was grumbling about that, I still was surrounded with a luxury of resources that you probably would have pounced on greedily.

But you and I are both in societies that try to tell girls that they either can’t, or shouldn’t, get the same kind of education as boys do. Both our societies are still telling women that they can’t, or shouldn’t, aspire to the same careers as men do. In your case, the society at question is much more overt about it – but in my case, even though it’s subtle, girls are still discouraged from studying math or science or technology, and they’re facing assault [2]and harassment on the job.  Even if it’s something they’re just doing for fun, women are told they’re not welcome, and face a lot of threats if they stay[3]. Again, no one has actually tried to shoot any of these women – at least, not yet.

Which is why it’s so important that you, and other women, just keep on going in the face of this. This isn’t just a problem for girls in Talib-controlled parts of the world – it’s a problem for girls everywhere. And not just girls – grown women face this problem. Because we are women, people think this means the things we can do, or think, or play with, can be restricted. And they can do some pretty terrible things to make sure we comply. But every time a girl blows that thinking off and says “I don’t care, I’m going to get my education anyway,” it makes it easier for the rest of us to say, “you know what, me too.”

And it’s not just women who need to have each others’ backs on this. Another thing you and I have in common is having had fathers who supported our brains. When you finally spoke to the press about your Nobel Peace Prize, you thanked your father for “not clipping [your] wings”[4]. He pretty much said exactly the same thing[5] a couple years ago. And I absolutely know what that’s like – my own father would encourage me to think and to question things, and let me see that he absolutely loved watching my mind at work. I told him recently that I realized how important that was and how grateful I was that he raised me that way, and he was genuinely surprised that I thought he should be thanked – it was more of a treat for him, he said, to see that happening.

But the thing is, not every father of a daughter is like that. I told my father how rare that was; I’m sure you also noticed how rare your own father was in how he thought. It can be just as brave for a man to support a daughter in a world trying to knock that daughter back, but it’s exactly what those daughters need.  Because that’s what helps us spot the sexism out in the world, that’s what proves to us that we don’t need to give in to it, and that’s what gives us a foundation to stand on and do battle from.  You know that as well as I.

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