Juliet: (yelling to me from the hallway) “What are we having for dinner?”
Me: (yelling back) “I don’t know…I was thinking cod.”
Juliet: (stomping away up the stairs) “Cod? Ugh, no! I don’t like cod at all!”
About ten or fifteen minutes after this conversation took place (when I had all but forgotten it), I wandered into the living room and discovered my seven-year old niece Holland curled on the couch in a fetal position, sobbing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, worried she was hurt or ill.
“Nobody here likes God,” she whispered.
“What?” I said, confused. I looked at her little shaking shoulders and gave her a big hug. I couldn’t pretend or lie. So I tried another tactic. “Why does that make you so sad?” I was curious to know why this was just now troubling her. “If you like God, that’s all that matters.”
She sniffed and shrugged her shoulders.
“Are you sad that we don’t talk about God more?” I asked.
She shook her head no.
“Are you sad that we don’t go to church?”
She shook her head no again.
“Then why are you so sad, sweetheart?”
“I don’t know,” she wailed. “I just want everyone to love God.”
At this point Juliet came bounding down the stairs and tearing into the living room, when she stopped suddenly. “What’s wrong with her?” she asked, alarmed.
“She’s feeling sad because she thinks we don’t like God.”
Juliet looked puzzled for a moment, then gasped. “Did you think I said we don’t like God?” she asked, incredulous. “No, I said I don’t like cod, Holland. Cod! Not God!”
We all had a good laugh then, and Holland’s tears disappeared, but not before I felt the enormity of her worry that, “They don’t love God enough.” Kids are wildly perceptive, and Holland knows our family worships no god purposely. This upsets her, as well as most of my extended family and friends. Which, believe it or not, I understand. I get that our non-belief is upsetting to many people. Because when you love something, you naturally want everyone else to love it, too. This is true no matter what you love. If you feel it passionately, urgently, like you never have enough time to devote to that thing that is what you love – be it knitting, back-packing, instagramming, worshipping God – well, then you feel sad when others around you don’t share this same feeling, and you honestly can’t fathom why everyone else doesn’t love this thing as much as you do.
When I was a girl what I loved, more than anything else, was reading. I was a sedentary, shy kid, but once a week I’d bike or walk up to the public library and fill my backpack with the most books you could check out at any one time. I’d race home, grab some cookies, then shut myself in my room, where I read, and read, and ate cookie after cookie. That is how I spent my youth.
I mostly read books about other girls – real and imagined – and I submerged myself in their adventures, their lives. It never occurred to me to get off my duff and go create my own wondrous world. Their excitements were riveting enough, to the detriment of my own health and social life.
I grew up reading about all sorts of extraordinary girls and women – adventurous souls who grabbed the Earth and shook it hello. At no point in time did I grow up believing women were inferior. But I did think the women I read about in those books were truly extraordinary, not average and plain like myself. I felt, when looking around at the world I saw every day, most women grew up to be teachers or nurses or housewives or businesswomen of some smallish sort or another. I never thought, “Yes sirree, I can grow up and one day be an astronaut! Or a CEO! Or the President of the whole United States!” I honestly had few examples of women around me doing ‘extraordinary’ things, except on tv, or in my books. So to me it seemed possible for women to go out and achieve a life without limits, but not likely.
Now that I’ve had daughters of my own, I can’t say whether we’ve progressed in our collective thinking on the issue of womankind and universal equality and opportunity or not. I still think we birth boys whom we then set down on the path of life expectantly, with all options open. Yet all over the world little girls are told (both physically and symbolically) – hang back now, look pretty, wait for ‘man’ to come and lead, dominate, decide.
Today is the first ever International Day of the Girl. Think of that, the first ever, in the year 2012!
And today, Malala Yousufzai is lying in a hospital in Rawalpindi with brain damage, fighting for her life, unable to continue the incredible, extraordinary story she began just a few years ago, at the age of ten.
A lot has been written about Malala. In fact, she became known to the world by blogging about herself, under a pseudonym, for the BBC four years ago. She wrote about her life as a ten-year old girl in Pakistan, attending a girl’s school operated by her father, a school specifically prohibited by the Taliban – men who used their religious extremism to decree that all girls in Malala’s country must stay out of sight, remain uneducated, keep their heads covered, wait for ‘men’…in essence, give up the entirety of their free will and exist instead in perpetual subservience, ignorance, and fear.
Malala refused to accept that her chance to learn or live a life of her own choosing could be blotted out by these religious extremists. These men, who love their chosen higher power to such a degree that any words or ideology not completely matching their own is seen as blasphemous, worthy to be punished by any means necessary, approached her as school let out and shot her in the head.
Why was Malala specifically targeted? Because she demanded an education from her country, then championed a voice that represented just a handful of the little girls ignored in this world run by men.
Maybe today, on this Day of the Girl, you will hear about Malala and her fight to stand up to religious intolerance and the radical subversion of women’s rights. This fourteen year old girl, whose name means ‘grief-stricken’, who bravely stood tall to share her small voice, only to be brazenly silenced, literally shot down.
Perhaps Malala will become synonymous with ‘grief-stricken’ the world over now. Grief that we still, in 2012, live in a place where the worship of one’s God is used publicly and repeatedly to mask domination and cruelty. Where religious fervor is allowed, time and time again, to act as a decoy to outrageous acts of brutality and the stripping of women’s rights.
Perhaps the name Malala will come to mean something besides just grief-stricken over time. A small reminder of what really needs protecting in this world. Maybe her story will echo on…in the voting booth, the board room, down the hallways of our schools….retold with both reverence and hope, horror and revolt.
On this first International Day of the Girl, we have a story with no happy ending in sight. Yet we all can contribute to the ending of Malala’s tale, by recognizing that hers is as great a story as has ever been told.