Tag Archives: Malala Yousafzai

Through Peace, Through Dialogue, Through Education

“Education is a power for women.”
Malala Yousafzai

“This question is hard!” a student good-naturedly pointed out to me. “You always ask such broad questions.” “Of course it’s hard,” I said. “I want you all to think, to think deeply, to – how do I put this? – learn things.” I gave her my “Call me crazy” shrug and she turned back to her discussion partner to figure out “What is a girl?”

As we were discussing everyone’s answers to the question, Mia asked, “What is ‘feminine?’” Everyone laughed, and several students jumped to try to look it up on their iPads. “Nope,” I said, halting them. “Dictionaries don’t always tell the whole story. It’s a really important question, and we’ll come back to it when we’ve finished with the main line of thought in the discussion.” About five minutes later, I wrote “Traditional ideas of feminine” and “Our ideas of feminine” on two panels of the white board. Olivia transcribed the students’ thoughts on traditional ideas, and Siobhan transcribed the girls’ original thoughts. Traditional ideas included “how to be proper,” “stay-at-home wife,” “long hair” and “meek and obedient,” among others. Asked to determine what threads ran through these ideas, the students came up with “keep contained,” “be ruled over,” “ideal (not reality),” “how you look,” “no voice,” and “housewife (specific role).” They noted that with every single trait listed, outside forces were trying to control and judge women.

Their ideas on ‘feminine” could not have contrasted more: powerful, strong, confident, being who you are, persistent, independent, awesome, rising… The connecting threads between these ideas which the students identified included positive, actions, having a voice, empowerment, breaking ties/breaking chains/freeing. With every single trait listed, they noted, girls and women were in control of their identities and their lives.

We held this discussion on Wednesday, October 9, coincidentally one year to the day after Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban on her way to school for having advocated for girls’ education. Also on the anniversary of the shooting, the Taliban renewed threats to kill her if she continues to remain outspoken on the policies and practices in Pakistan. Yet, Malala, frequently seen as one of the leading candidates for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (which would make her, at 16, the youngest recipient ever), remains firm in her convictions: “I will be a politician in my future,” she said. “I want to change the future of my country, and I want to make education compulsory.” (Craig and Mehsud)

So as we celebrate the International Day of the Girl on October 11, reflecting on Malala’s courageous example of my students’ feminine ideal, I leave you with her words when Jon Stewart asked her if she had been afraid the Taliban would target her:
I started thinking about it, and I started thinking the Talib would come and he would just kill me. But then I said, if he comes, what would you do, Malala? Then I would reply to myself, Malala, just take a shoe and hit him. But then I said, if you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly. You must fight others but through peace, and through dialogue, and through education.
For those interested in learning more, Malala has released her memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.


Filed under Current Events, Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Women in media

The Right Thing is Easy to Do

“A good friend of mine who used to be Head of School here,” I began, “used to say, ‘The right thing is easy to do.'” I segued to a description of a 7th grader, the day’s recipient of the “Shining Star” award, who found the courage to go up to an adult who was smoking outside our gym, someone she didn’t know, and tell that person we were a non-smoking campus. A friend of hers who was proud of her had originally told me of the moment, something which this girl readily acknowledged she had done but which she also felt was no big deal. From my perspective, of course, finding the courage at the age of 12 to go up to an unfamiliar adult and let them know they are breaking school rules is a big deal. The right thing to do, absolutely. But easy?

Of course, in general it’s much easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing. We make that kind of decision probably hundreds of times a day, from the moment we first wake up and decide that yes, we will get dressed and go to school to the moment when, with the day behind us, we finally decide to return to bed and get some much-needed and necessary sleep. Even hitting the brake at a stop sign is a conscious decision to do the right thing. Indeed, my sister-in-law has observed that four-way stop signs restore her faith in human nature.

Where it becomes more difficult is when doing the right thing carries some sort of a risk. Context is everything here. What are you going to do about that stop sign if you’re racing someone and your pride is on the line? If your friends in the car are relentlessly teasing you that you couldn’t break a rule if you tried? If you’re running late for work and have been threatened with being fired? Or, much more seriously, if you’re being pursued by someone who has physically threatened you?

Often, too, it’s harder to do the right thing when the alternative is to do nothing and stay out of it. My college’s honor code meant that faculty members were not allowed to supervise exams. Instead, we students signed a statement that signified that we had “neither received nor given any information on this test.” Additionally, we were required to report any instances of cheating we observed or, under the rules of the honor code, we were equally guilty. I always kept my eyes glued to my test papers lest I inadvertently see anything I would have had to report. Technically speaking, I was honest and true to the honor code. Ethically speaking, too, you can argue I was in the right not to be hyper-vigilant and out to get people. But ultimately, if everyone had done as I did, we would not have been a community attempting to live up to the ideals of our honor code; we would have been individuals living in separate worlds. And this situation is much less serious than standing by and watching bullies taunt an innocent victim, as at least I could argue I didn’t know if anything wrong had taken place.

And what if doing the right thing carries a serious risk as opposed to remaining uninvolved? Malala Yousafzai took a bullet to the head for having stood up for the education of girls, and she is just one of countless thousands who are taking that risk every day. Tell me it was easy for any girl in Pakistan who knew what had happened to Ms. Yousafzai to wake up the next morning and go to school as if nothing had happened. For that matter, what civil rights would now exist in this country if people from early suffragettes to desegregationists to gay rights activists had not stood up for what was right despite potential risks to life and limb?

The key is where to find the courage to do the right thing when it’s not necessarily easy to do. External rules and motivation will be next to meaningless here. It’s got to come from deep inside you, from an internalized sense of right and wrong which may for some of us be infused with religious and/or spiritual beliefs. Often, it helps to consider the alternative. Reaching out to others of like beliefs for support and comfort can also help. Periodically, most of the visionary and innovative educators I know suffer from self-doubt when faced with strong resistance, and turn to others for reassurance that we are not rushing headlong down a path that will cause serious damage to our students but rather are lighting the way to a more responsive, humane, and ultimately effective educational system.

In the end, if you strive always to do the right thing, you can go through life with your head held high knowing you are truly being your best self. And, considering the alternative, maybe that means the right thing truly is easy to do. Perhaps my friend, Patrick Collins (Head of School from 1995-1998), was right after all.

Leave a comment

Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage

“Read if you are so inclined”

The subject header, “Read if you are so inclined,” telegraphed that the student who had sent this “All School” email had something important on her mind. She wrote, “Below is a link to a New York Times article. I believe that is important to keep track of what happens outside of our SBS community, and this article in particular moved me beyond words. Reading it I found myself analyzing my role as a student and as a woman growing up in western society.” She was referring to an article by Declan Walsh about the Taliban attack on Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani activist who had won her country’s peace prize a year ago for her advocacy of girls’ education. According to the article, the Taliban put her on an assassination list last spring for “openly propagating [Western Culture],” calling her human rights campaigning an “obscenity” and vowing to return and finish the job if she survives. (Walsh) As I write, reports are mixed, some stating she will be okay and that the bullet did not pass through her brain, others stating that she will need to be flown out of the country to receive complicated surgery if she is to live.

Assuming most of us here agree that the attempted assassination of a 14-year-old girl for affirming her gender’s right to education is the true obscenity, what can we do besides raise our voices in what feels like a fairly futile protest? The student who shared this article with the school wrote of “analyzing [her] role as a student and as a woman growing up in western society” and of course Stoneleigh-Burnham’s mission is fundamentally to empower girls to develop and use their voices and be their own best selves in a global community. That is, of course, exactly the mission of Ms. Yousafzai as well. Students here are encouraged by a larger community of adults including faculty, staff, parents, and alumnae. Those who object to what we are doing mostly leave us alone, perhaps writing an occasional article decrying single-gender education for perpetuating stereotypes despite research to the contrary. Ms. Yousafzai has also found encouragement, from her parents, from her government, from friends, from progressives throughout her country. But those who object aren’t just writing articles; they have sworn to bring about her death, and have come close to doing so.

It seems incomprehensible, all the more so because research is clear that educating girls is one of the surest ways to bring about a peaceful and more humane society, and supporting women one of the surest ways to elevate everyone. Organizations such as Women to Women International (supporting survivors of war), Kiva (a microloan service which lends to men as well) and the Half the Sky Movement (inspired by the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn) are doing important, amazing, positive work to support women and girls. Two years ago, we welcomed Sally and Don Goodrich to the school to talk about the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, established following their son’s death in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the work they had done building a girls school in Afghanistan.

With all this good work going on, though, and living as we do in a comfortable and safe world devoted to the feminist ideal that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, here in the so-called “Happy Valley,” it’s easy to lose sight of the larger context. The Women Under Seige Project, originated by Gloria Steinem, works to highlight that very context, spreading the word through everything from blogging to tweeting to facebooking to creating a live crowdmap of sexualized violence in Syria.

On October 4, Women Under Seige tweeted “#Gender is the fundamental construct for how a society understands difference,” linking to the blog posting “Why everyday gender inequality could lead to our next war.” Given this truth, promoting a deeper, broader, more thorough understanding of gender becomes necessary to understanding difference and, eventually, moving past stereotypes to truly allow people to be their own true selves. Today’s attack on Malala Yousafzai is a stark reminder of that necessity, and a chance to recommit to the mission.

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

Leave a comment

Filed under Gender, On Education, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School