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!