Yesterday a Taliban member in Pakistan approached a school bus, asked for 14 year old student Malala Yousufzai, and when a classmate identified her, he shot her in the head and neck and injured two others. Malala was targeted for speaking out against the Taliban for murdering locals and closing girls’ schools at a time when the government seemed to be appeasing the extremist group. She is in critical condition, and doctors believe that her wounds aren’t life threatening. At this time, she appears to be doing well after having a bullet removed from her head.
Malala was featured in a New York Times documentary a few years back, telling reporters that she wanted to be a doctor; her father encouraged her to go on to become a politician. In 2009, she kept a diary series for the BBC, discussing her fears about going to school and retaliation from the Taliban:
“SATURDAY 3 JANUARY: I AM AFRAID
I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taleban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. My mother made me breakfast and I went off to school. I was afraid going to school because the Taleban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.
Only 11 students attended the class out of 27. The number decreased because of Taleban’s edict. My three friends have shifted to Peshawar, Lahore and Rawalpindi with their families after this edict.
On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you’. I hastened my pace and after a while I looked back if the man was still coming behind me. But to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”
A militant spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban says that the attack was justified because “she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun [conservative] areas.”
Malala’s struggle for a basic human right – to pursue an education – and the deep price she has paid for it already makes me reflect on all the blessings that American women have in education, and how far we have to go.
Unlike Malala, American girls can not only safely go to school, but dream of pursuing any career they choose without fearing violent retaliation. Laws such as Title IX, the landmark law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in education, have been designed to ensure those rights, but that isn’t enough.
Even if Malala had been born in the United States, she would have faced an education system that discourages girls and women from becoming professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields – such as medicine, her chosen field.
Although participation in STEM classes among girls has been increasing since Title IX became a law 40 years ago, boys in high school continue to earn more credits in physics, computer/information science, and engineering/science technology classes. Women earn remarkably small percentages of physics and engineering-related degrees, and in computer sciences, women’s representation has declined by 14 percentage points. Many young girls see STEM careers as something girls “don’t do”; they face pervasive stereotypes from professionals in the field, are subjected constantly to sexist remarks, and lack female role models in the field.
If Malala had become pregnant in the United States, she would have faced persistent discrimination. Many High Schools steer students into alternative programs or are told to drop out and get a GED. Schools fail to excuse absences related to pregnancy, and some students are harassed by fellow students or even teachers. Harassment doesn’t stop at pregnant teens. Nearly half of all teachers reported hearing students make sexist remarks at school, and 48% of 7th – 12th grade students experienced some form of sexual harassment during the school year, with most of them reporting that the harassment had a negative effect on them.
It’s only fitting that today is the first annual International Day of the Girl, designed for people to speak out against gender bias and advocate for girls’ rights all over the globe. Tomorrow, let’s keep Malala in our thoughts, wish her a speedy recovery, and rededicate ourselves to the education and rights of girls all over the world.