Does anyone remember Maurice Chevalier singing in his raspy voice, Gallic charm oozing from every word, “Thank Heaven for little girls” in the Lerner and Loewe musical Gigi? The joie de vivre that moves the film along tells the story of an old roué, his protégé and a courtesan-in-training. The underlying plot however shows that girls really do know their own minds and are not to be messed with. While “they grow up in a most delightful way”, they also often have a very clear idea of what they want to achieve in life, and some of the truly remarkable ones are very young indeed.
“Girls might just want to have fun” as Cyndi Lauper sang, but they also want to be learn. Education is a given for women in the Western world. It might not always be the best there is but they are ‘permitted’ to learn. Many then have the opportunity to follow their chosen career path, and the ability and the encouragement to excel. We take it very much for granted. Not so those living under the Taliban mantel.
And yet somehow in that wonderful way the world has of producing bright, articulate and brave people out of the most unusual and unexpected environments we are introduced to girls like Malala Yousufzai. Encouraged by her father, Ziauddin, an activist and schoolmaster in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, Malala began writing a blog under a pseudonym on life under Taliban rule for the BBC Urdu service. Her first blog was posted on 3rd January 2009 when she was 11. Of the Taliban’s decree that banned girls from school Malala said, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”
From her early blogs she progressed to speaking out about the oppressions enforced by the Taliban, about her fear of the artillery fire heard close by through the nights, about how the Pakistani military attempted to gain public sympathy by tossing toffees from helicopters to the villagers. Along the way the teenager picked up awards and recognition from both her own country and around the world.
For her persistence in denigrating the Taliban Malala was cowardly gunned down on October 9th by a masked gunman while on a school bus filled with fellow students, all girls. After medical care in Peshawar and Rawalpindi she was spirited out at dawn to a waiting United Arab Emirates medical jet and later delivered safely to the Queen Elizabeth II Memorial Centre in Birmingham, England for further treatment.
It is probably due to Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea (see my blog One Cup of Tea and Honesty, Please, April 18th 2011) that international press space, certainly in the 21st Century, has been given to educating girls in the ragged mountainous regions of the North West Frontier and along the southern ranges of the Himalayas. His words, “The best way to bring about social and economic change and to raise standards of living in developing countries is to educate the girls,” fitted neatly into the hearts and minds campaign of the coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Yet it is the on-the-ground bravery of people like Malala and her family and the many enlightened people, who live in countries ruled by misogynists misinterpreting the guiding principles of their religion and enforcing oppressive laws, who are the ones that suffer so terribly.
Let’s hope “Gul Makai”, the name under which Malala wrote and which means, “Corn Flower” in Urdu, blooms again. In the meantime we can “Thank Heaven for little girls!”