Malala Yousafzai has captured our hearts, prayers and worldwide attention in the past few days. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Yousafzai is the 14-year-old Pakistani girl shot by Taliban supporters because she wants to go to school and has spent the last three years speaking out about the right girls have to get an education. Earlier today, she and her family made it to the UK, where she will have access to the medical care she needs to have a chance at recovering from being shot in the head.
Did you know her name means grief-stricken? Those of us following her story have been struck with grief, too, along with a sense of moral outrage that there are men in this world who believe it’s right to shoot a girl because she wants to go to school.
Yousafzai is a victim in a war not her own making, but she was persistent and loud enough to draw attention to herself through a blog she’s been writing since she was 11. Her voice has a power that the Taliban has tried to silence, and I only hope that other voices will join hers and sustain her cause while she struggles for life.
I want all of you with daughters and nieces (and sons and nephews whom you hope will grow up to marry fabulous women) to imagine your emotions if Yousafzai had been one of your own. What weapons would you take up in her fight? Would you fight for her against what so many take for granted: the right to go to school?
It’s easy, in the face of our fresh grief and outrage for this girl, to imagine what we would want to do if we were part of her family, part of her community. But there’s a culture war happening here in the Western world, too, and I wonder if it’s easier for us to ignore simply because there aren’t vans being stopped on the way from school and 14-year-old girls getting shot in the head over it.
I’m speaking of the mainstream media’s cultural war on what it means to be a girl and, ultimately, what it means to be a woman.
The Western culture war on girls
I’ve mentioned before that I’m coaching Girls on the Run for the first time this season. I love it because it gives me a chance to mentor elementary and middle school girls before they enter those scary teenage years. Teaching them to run is just a bonus, as far as I’m concerned, because the greater lessons come with the talks we get to have.
A few tell me they worry they’re not smart enough or can’t run very fast. But mostly, they tell me they’re worried about their physical appearance. They tell me they’re fat. They tell me they’re not pretty. And it makes the good aunt in me want to weep.
Where are these beautiful, healthy girls getting these ideas? Through the TV and movies they watch, the dolls they play with (Bratz dolls, anyone?), even the grocery store checkout lanes they stand in with their parents, girls get the message that success for women in America means attaining a perfect physical look so they can be sexy for men: perfect weight, perfect hair, eyelashes, lips, skin, body. From mainstream media’s perspective, who cares if you know how to calculate math ratios, as long as your breast/waist/hip ratio is right?
Some girls don’t even have to leave home to hear these messages, hearing Mom say, “I’m so fat.” And if she hears that her mom is fat enough times, it won’t take long for her to look in the mirror at herself and think, “I’m fat, too.”
Is it any wonder that eating disorders are on the rise among young girls and boys, too, some as young as six years old?
For your sisters, your daughters and your nieces, will you enter the battle? Will you arm the girls in your life with an ability to look past the shallow images that fall far short of representing how powerful a girl and a woman can be? Will you help them dream larger dreams for themselves?
We grieve for Malala Yousafzai. We grieve that she took a bullet in the head because she wanted to go to school and grow up to be a doctor someday. Many of our children take emotional bullets to the head every day, and we are doing little to grieve the loss of their dreams.
But when we empower girls in our own sphere of influence, we prepare the future women who will help decide whether we win our own and Yousafzai’s battles.