On October 12 last year, masked gunmen boarded a school bus in the Swat District of Pakistan and asked a 15-year old girl to identify herself. They then shot her and two friends.
Malala Yousafzai had won international attention for her blogs about the rights of girls to an education. The Taliban had issued an edict in 2009 banning girls from schools. Malala’s father continued to operate the school she attended and she wrote an anonymous blog supporting him. Later she began to write for the BBC, giving interviews.
Hers was a quiet voice expressing a hunger for learning felt by millions of girls around the world.
When the Taliban tried to silence Malala, they underestimated her tenacity. She recovered from her wounds. And Friday she addressed the UN on her 16th birthday. Her speech was an extraordinary statement, a calm, reasoned argument in favor of the universal right to education embodied in international law. You can watch her speech here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/news/world-asia-23291897 .
It was not always so. Neither the right to education, nor the contents of that education, have long historic antecedents.
The education of middle class young men was not embraced until the 1600s. Influential writers like John Milton and John Locke wrote about the moral and social value of education for males. But even Locke, a proponent of individual liberty, dismissed the education of the poor, suggesting they should be trained for factory labor as early as three years old. Schooling for girls was not even addressed.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an early advocate for women. But even her curriculum for girls was designed to prepare them for motherhood and matrimony. It was another hundred years before government-sponsored schools were open to girls and even then curricula was often skewed; boys learned mathematics and science while girls studied home economics and typing.
Today we take universal education for granted. The rights to an education is enshrined in numerous constitutions, statutes, and international compacts.
Of course not everybody agrees. The Taliban took credit for Malala’s attack. One of her attackers was reputed to be a 23-year old chemistry student. How ironic. The word “Taliban” means “students” in Pashto. Malala’s attacker was a science student. Clearly education means something different to her attacker and his fellow Taliban.
The Taliban advocate a form of ideological ignorance. According to them, women must be isolated from contact with men. With few exceptions, they should not be employed. They should not be educated. Education is a threat to their beliefs and to their culture.
The day Malala spoke the New York Times published a story about more bombing attacks on Pakistani girls’ schools. In her speech she called on us to protect her rights and those of over 70 million other girls around the world. We can do no less.
Several Taliban factions have sought negotiations over the past couple years. Accepting Malala and her father’s school must be a necessary condition of any discussions.
Meantime I hope Malala’s speech did not fall on deaf ears. We cannot be silent witnesses to this outrage any longer.