The value of the life of a girl is unfathomably measured by man based on where she is born. If she is even given the chance to be born in some countries, her value is less than that of a boy. But if she is born in Taliban-controlled regions of Afghanistan and mountainous Pakistan near the Afghan border, her life is smothered by oppression and if she dares to cross the threshold of her home to simply get an education, she does so at risk of her own life. In great struggles that come to light on the world stage, there is usually a protagonist with whom we can identify, with whose story we can feel compassion. In the struggle for the rights of female education in her country, that protagonist is Malala Yousafzai.
The bright-eyed, amazingly poised, 14-year-old girl was targeted by masked Taliban gunmen who boarded her bus on the way home from school, and was shot in the head and neck, leaving her fighting for her life in a struggle she began in her beloved Swat Valley three years ago. After the shooting, a Taliban spokesman said his organization considers Malala’s crusade for education rights an “obscenity” and if she survives, the group promises to try to kill her again.
Malala, named after a mythic female figure in Pashtun culture, once dreamt of becoming a doctor, but recently she became interested in politics to end the crises which have threatened to destroy her country for years. In 2011, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize for her bravery in standing up for girls’ educational rights amidst rising fundamentalism during a time when few adults would take a stand. Malala came to public attention in 2009 as the Pakistani Taliban, their faces covered by dark turbans, swept through her valley home, once a beautiful vacation spot famous for its music and tolerance, and unleashed a wave of violence. Her father ran one of the last schools that defied Taliban orders to end female education. As an 11-year-old, Malala began writing a blog about her struggle to be educated under daily threat and danger. “She symbolizes the brave girls of Swat” said Samar Minallah, a documentary filmmaker. “She knew her voice was important, so she spoke up for the rights of children. Even adults didn’t have a vision like hers.”
In neighboring Afghanistan, girls have been maimed by acid attacks, targeted by bombers, and had their drinking water poisoned simply because of their desire to be educated. While this happens under the oppressive Taliban, the overall education of girls in Afghanistan is improving. “Basically, you didn’t have girls educated in 2001,” said Christine Roehrs, spokeswoman for Save the Children in Afghanistan. “And now we have 3 million girls in school.”
The region awoke to the barbaric rule of the Taliban eleven years ago. Its regime in Afghanistan was known for brutal repression and subjugation of women who were not allowed to work or attend school. Women could not laugh out loud, wear bright colors, and their fingernails were ripped out for the crime of wearing nail polish. Taliban religious police on patrol daily beat women who went out alone or who were not dressed properly. Needless to say, the internet was banned, but imagine a country where even kite flying was outlawed. It seemed that hope itself was extinguished.
While the Taliban has largely been pushed back and its ability to attack Pakistan’s major cities has waned in the past year, there are still rural areas along the Afghan border where militants have intensified their efforts to silence critics and impose their will.
As I watched a documentary about her struggle and listened to Malala and her father share their simple dream to live at peace and pursue education for girls in their mountainous home, I was deeply moved. Draped in vibrant colors, which would be banned under the Taliban, she spoke with the innocence of a young girl and the clarity and purpose of someone far more mature. I couldn’t imagine anyone shooting her. As I pray for her I am reminded of a Jewish carpenter who elevated the situation of women in the Mediterranean and Greco-Roman world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Jesus gave women human dignity. . . Prior to Jesus, women were regarded as inferior beings, religiously speaking.”
But not only in relation to religion. During the time of Jesus, women were usually not educated and often remained indoors. When a girl was born, she was often left to die. Yet the longest conversation recorded between Jesus and another person is in John 4 when he asked the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink to the surprise of his disciples. He engaged in a deeply theological and personal conversation with her, taking seriously her thoughts and questions. As John Ortberg observed in his book Who is this Man?, “Is it any wonder she could not stop talking about this man? Jesus was doing something very subversive. He was treating a woman like someone who had her own identity.”
Often people teach the story about Mary and Martha in the Bible as a lesson about avoiding busy-ness, but no one in the first century would have seen it that way. “To sit at someone’s feet” meant to be someone’s disciple. Martha did what the culture valued in women, she was busy cooking and cleaning, while Mary did what the culture valued in men. She became a disciple. And Jesus honored her choice. He invited women to be His disciples.
We value education for our daughters who have never experienced barriers based on gender or otherwise in pursuit of their education, faith and dreams. But it is not enough for me to be grateful for them, I pray this will be the experience of every girl no matter where she is born.