Monday, October 21, 2013

Malala, the Muslim Feminist

In 2007, Somali-born Dutch author Ayaan Hirsi Ali published "Infidel," an autobiography that documented her journey from repression in Muslim East Africa to the freedom of the Netherlands. To be free, Hirsi Ali claimed, Muslim women must renounce their faith and their cultures. Rife with awestruck veneration of the empowered West, Hirsi Ali's recipe for liberation for Muslim women was eagerly consumed. The book became a New York Times best-seller and its author a celebrity. Not long after, Hirsi Ali collaborated on a film that further pushed her point and featured her naked silhouette in the rituals of Muslim prayer. Extremist clerics in various parts of the Muslim world denounced her as a heretic, bolstering Hirsi Ali's royalties.
In 2013, the world is getting to know Malala Yousafzai, a schoolgirl from Pakistan who has become a champion for girls' education and was a favorite in betting parlors to win the Nobel Peace Prize. On Oct. 8, 2012, Malala, then 15, was a student at one of the few girls' schools in the Swat Valley, in the country's north. On an otherwise uneventful afternoon, Malala, whose family had received threats from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for continuing her education, got into the Toyota van that transported the girls to and from school. Minutes later, it was accosted by Taliban gunmen; they asked for Yousafzai by name and shot her. Her skull was fractured, and she nearly died. Her book, "I Am Malala," is the story of that grim afternoon and all that came before and has come after.
For Muslim girls and women around the world, however, the story is more than just a tale of survival. In Malala's frank prose is proof that feminism, or the desire for equality through education and empowerment, is not the terrain of any one culture or faith. In the first few pages of the book, we are introduced to Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun heroine of old for whom Yousafzai was named. Malalai rallied Pashtun men to fight the invading British, venturing bravely onto the battlefield and dying under fire. Her namesake has done the same and survived. In later pages, we meet Gul Makai, another Pashtun heroine, who used the Quran to teach her elders that war is bad. It was under her name that Yousafzai wrote her first published work, the diary of a schoolgirl banned from school in a Swat controlled by the Taliban. In the legend, Gul Makai is able to convince her elders of the evils of conflict; she marries her love, a schoolmate. The legend of Malala, who no longer uses a pseudonym, has just begun.
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