I Am Malala


I belong to a very interesting group that started in Syracuse right after 9/11. It is called Women Transcending Boundaries, and it has just celebrated its fifteenth anniversary with an international dinner. The group truly is international, as its members are from every religion and ethnicity. One main point of the group is to learn about each other’s cultures and religions. One year recently the groups meetings were held at local churches, mosques, temples and Sikh places of worship. In its Book Club—of which I am a member—we read books from different genres and relating to a balanced variety of stories of different countries, different time periods, different religions and different cultures. The emphasis is sometimes on immigrants and refugees, as our group also helps incoming refugees with sewing classes and resettlement issues.

I just finished reading our latest book for our book club. It is I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. In this memoir she tells her story from the beginning with her birth in the beautiful Swat Valley of Pakistan. Though she was a daughter and not the preferred male child of most in their culture, she was very wanted and beloved as the first child. For most Pashtuns, it is a gloomy day when a female child is born. But her father, Ziauddin, did an unusual thing; he took the vast family tree of his clan that went back to his great-great-grandfather and only showed the male line and drew a line like a lollipop from his name and wrote Malala. He even asked friends to throw dried fruits, sweets, and coins into her cradle, something usually done only for boys.

Malala Yousafzai is now an activist for female education and the youngest ever Nobel Laureate. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when she was just sixteen years old. Today, she is only nineteen years old. A bullet to the head did not stop her activism. Her father built and ran a school in the Swat Valley that encouraged girls as well as boys to get a good education. His school taught something more than the madrasas that most students attended and were mainly religious schools. And girls were encouraged to learn as much as the boys.

Malala does not want to be thought of as “the girl who got shot by the Taliban” but as “the girl who fought for education.” When she spoke at the United Nations in New York City, she says that in her speech she wanted to reach all people living in poverty, especially those children forced to work and those who suffer from terrorism or lack of education. She wanted to reach every child who could take courage from her words and stand up for his or her rights. She called upon the world’s leaders to provide free education to every child in the world. “Let us pick up our books and our pens,” she said. “They are the most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.” She received a standing ovation!

It is a misconception that Islam says women should not be educated. The Quran says exactly the opposite. It says that every girl and every boy should go to school because God wants all to have knowledge. He wants us to know why the sky is blue and about oceans and stars.

The reality today is that there are fifty-seven million children who are not in primary school, and thirty-two million of them are girls. In Malala’s homeland, Pakistan, over five million children don’t even go to primary school even though it is in their constitution that every child has a right to education.

Matilda Joslyn Gage’s father homeschooled her in her early years and taught her. Hezekiah Joslyn was a well-respected doctor in his community, he did not think he would face barriers when he tried to enroll Matilda into medical school. She was denied entrance, of course. Elizabeth Blackwell, a few years later, finally made that breakthrough. She was admitted as a joke but soon proved her mettle.

It is understandable that Matilda was very upset and distressed when he youngest daughter Maud decided to drop out of college at Cornell (a lot can change in just one generation!) to marry an itinerant actor with an unstable income. Fortunately, she soon came around to accepting the fact that L. Frank Baum would be her new son-in-law. Maud, after all, was as determined as her mother to make her own decisions and strongly push for her point of view! Matilda encouraged Baum to write down his stories about his make-believe land of Oz. (He apparently made up the name on the spot when one of the children he was telling about the wizard asked about the name of this special city. He glanced over to the file cabinet nearby him in the Gage house parlor and saw the O–Z label and called this land of witches and munchkins Oz. In fact, Glinda, the good witch, was modeled after Matilda.)

Education is more important than ever! Having been a public school teacher for all of my career, it is quite frightening to imagine the appointment of a woman to head the Department of Education who doesn’t even believe in public schools, pushes vouchers, is extremely wealthy and has never worked in an education-related job. The way the split in the election results for the next president definitely split along educational lines. There were other reasons as well, but the lack of fact-checking what was being fed to them, fear and hatred of the educated elite and despair in their lives of hard work and never getting ahead played a role. Malala and Matilda, both lovers of learning and extremely bright women, both paid penalties for using their intelligence to advance the lives of others as well as themselves. Matilda Joslyn Gage paid the price by being written out of history for daring to boldly express her progressive views. Malala Yousafzai almost paid the ultimate penalty of death. The Taliban thought they could stop her; instead, she became even more determined to change the lives of young girls by committing to even more fully challenge the restrictive regime of those who would throw acid in the faces of girls walking to school, fire bullets into their heads, close and bulldoze their schools, whip them publicly for being caught carrying schoolbooks, and many other fear-based actions against girls who want to learn more than domestic tasks. She deserved her Peace Prize. Matilda deserved one too!

Standing Rock

I am exhilarated right now to hear the news that the pipeline through Standing Rock has been halted! Preferably, it will be discontinued all together. “Keep it [oil] in the ground” has been one of the rallying cries. It may just be rerouted, but this is still a big victory for now.

Yesterday, I tabled at our local annual Plowshares Craft Fair for NOON (Neighbors of Onondaga Nation). I handed out free postcards containing a plea to stop the Dakota pipeline and asked the people to send them to President Obama. This is the text of the postcard:

I write in support of the Native American Water Protectors in Standing Rock and the non-Native people who have joined them to protect our future. I implore you to heed their call and STOP THE PIPELINE immediately. Oil spills, as we have all seen, threaten our waters and communities. We also have a responsibility to uphold our treaties with Native American nations. Taking this courageous action would be a major step for sustainability and social justice. It would also offer a bold challenge for the next administration to follow. We owe this to the generations to come.

On the front of the card is a photo of some of the many water protectors with a large banner saying “Defend the Sacred.”


Many of my white and native friends from our area have gone to be at Standing Rock to act as Water Protectors. Some have gone more than once. Many others, including myself, have donated warm clothing, blankets, and money. We have purchased “Standing with Standing Rock” buttons to wear in order to show our solidarity with the Dakota Sioux tribes and to spread the news of this event that has been ongoing since April but almost never spoken about on regular daily news programs. Locally, I and about a thousand others walked the six miles from the Onondaga Nation’s arena to Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse. The rally held there hosted several speakers who had recently returned from the area.

Lately, the momentum has changed, and they are getting coverage of their entirely peaceful and prayerful protest. Other Indian nations and many indigenous people from around the world have also joined them. So have some Hollywood celebrities, hoping to draw attention to the standoff. They withstood the cold weather. Hoses were used to spray water toward them in frigid temperature, with the irony of this horrific tactic not lost on the fact that they are there to protect that same precious water not only for themselves but for the millions of people of all colors living below the Standing Rock. They have endured being thrown into cages, being strip-searched, being shot with rubber bullets, and being bullied terribly.

One day, a few weeks ago, 141 were arrested because they were defending their ancient sacred ground and burial sites from the invasion of a tar sands pipeline which started in Canada and intended to go through many states all the way to the south. It was diverted from the wealthier suburban area around Bismarck, citing danger for these wealthier and more connected citizens in case there was an oil spill, which happens so often that it is almost inevitable. That fact is even more dangerous in this particular scenario, as the Missouri River—under which this oil company wants to run this dangerous pipeline so that they can export all this oil OUT of our country—is the only source of water in these western lands.  Many of the signs and banners read “Water Is Life” and “You Can’t Drink the Oil.”

The day I learned about all the people arrested at Standing Rock is the same day I heard the announcement that all the Oregon standoff defendants were found not guilty in an “unbelievable, truly astonishing’” verdict. This is especially disturbing because they were heavily armed and had destroyed parts of public land as well as sacred land and burial sites of the ancestral people. I cried at the irony of it all, the terrible injustice being done.

What does this discussion have to do with Women’s Rights? There is an obvious connection. Women have been activists and protesters for their rights for several centuries. When nonviolent protests didn’t work, suffragettes (different from suffragists) in England upped their game by destroying property and other attention-getting tactics when reasoning with the opposition did not work. It is wonderfully refreshing that this protest against a dangerous pipeline won the day for the Indians and the rest of us who care about clean water. Time will tell whether or not the battle will also be won. But as Martin Luther King Jr. has said, “The long arc of history bends toward justice.” Right now, though women have gained the right to vote and have broken glass ceilings in almost every area, there are still, after all these years, many barriers that need to be eliminated before there is full equality. And particularly now, those rights and the justice we have already obtained are in dire danger of being lost again and will have to be fought for all over again. Ms. Magazine’s Ellie Smeal and Kathy Spillar, speaking for their entire staff have stated: “We have come too far and worked too hard to go back now.” They are urging women in this time of despair to not give up. There words are a battle cry: “If we are stymied at the local level, we must change the local level. If we are stopped at the state level, we must change it. And if we are blocked at the national level, we will persevere until our way forward is clear. We will not take no for an answer. The need is too great, the urgency too strong. We at Ms. Magazine pledge to keep on keeping on with renewed vigor and commitment to meet this historic challenge. We will never go back, and we will never give up. We will continue to spread the ideas, joys, activities, setbacks and advances of feminists both at home and across the globe.”

The victory at Standing Rock and other victories—whether for the climate, or seniors’ needs, or for black, Muslim, Latino, and LGBT men and women—will continue until there is an ultimate victory. All these groups know that it isn’t easy and it doesn’t always happen overnight, but the arc will continue to bend toward justice, even with setbacks along the way.

This victory feels so good, and many have already written to Obama to thank him instead! Delightful!

A view of the Oceti Sakowin camp, north of the Cannonball River, where people have gathered to protest the Dakota Access oil pipeline.


Army Corps Denies Easement for Dakota Access Pipeline and cautious rejoicing ensues.