Americans are fortunate to live in a country where a young woman’s quest for equal opportunity in education enables her to stand on the steps of the Supreme Court to proclaim that, while she received a perfectly steller education at one great university, she would have preferred to go to another great university but, so claims Abigail Fisher, her seat was taken by someone less worthy because of affirmative action considerations.
Now consider Malala Yousafzai, a 14 year-old Pakistani girl who lies critically wounded in a military hospital. An agent of the Taliban sought her out on her school bus and shot her in the head. Why? Because this teenager dared to advocate for the right of girls to attend school in Pakistan. The Taliban have vowed to seek her out again and finish the job — a standing order to execute this child — because, in their view, she “has become a symbol of Western culture” meaning that she has spoken out in favor of allowing girls to go to school in a country and a culture that prefers girls to remain illiterate and ready for lifelong domination in arranged marriages imposed while the girls are still very young, sometimes as young as age 10.
Where’s the outrage, really?
In the United States, we squander untold wealth and brainpower in the pursuit of privilege, political advantage and personal comfort. This is a nation where a well-educated young woman can still feel sufficiently aggrieved by the prestige of her degree to spend time and money in ways that will pose grave harm to the future educational opportunities of other people. We indulge personal privilege as a shining badge of our freedom, increasingly reflecting a national preference for accumulating goods for ourselves regardless of the cost to others. Sure, Abigail has a right to her complaint, but is it right? Imagine the good that could come from turning the firepower of all those lawyers and all that money toward the cause of justice for girls’ education around the world!
We haven’t heard the presidential candidates dare call out Americans for moral navel-gazing. Indeed, the current campaign has encouraged Americans to feel robbed of opportunities, deprived of richly deserved goodies, needy for a father figure to rebuild our self-esteem through making sure we all get trophies or at least more tax breaks. Washington Post Columnist E.J. Dionne calls this the campaign’s “moral hole” on social justice issues.
In this nation, the airwaves devoted considerably more time this week to Big Bird than to Malala Yousafzai. What of her life concerns us? We’re far more concerned about why the panda cub died, whether the Nats will win the playoffs, and will RGIII be back on the field on Sunday.
Writing with his usual passionate clarity about the condition of girls in the world, Nicholas Kristof said in today’s New York Times, “They [the Taliban] shot Malala because girls’ education threatens everything that they stand for. The greatest risk for violent extremists in Pakistan isn’t American drones. It’s educated girls.”
Former First Lady Laura Bush also spoke out about Malala’s shooting in an op-ed in the Washington Post, calling for renewed efforts “to resist the ongoing cruelty and barbarism of the Taliban.”
We can shake our heads and wonder why, after more than a decade of war and thousands of lives lost and untold numbers maimed, the Taliban thrives while Americans simply look for the escape hatch. Getting our military out of Afghanistan is overdue, of course, but we have to examine our entire strategy for bringing hope and freedom to the world. Military might, while obviously necessary for defense and security, cannot be effective to achieve social transformation.
The best and most certain long-term force to achieve social change, relieve poverty, confront tyranny and defeat oppression is education. And leaders of developed nations around the world have been clear and consistent in saying that the education of girls and women is the best possible weapon in the fight to improve economic and social conditions for all people.
Wouldn’t it be great if Mitt Romney and Barack Obama agreed to devote their next debate, not to some silly Hunger Games-like contest to see which one gets off the best zingers against the other, but rather, to a full and thoughtful exposition of their plans to use American wealth and intellectual might to ensure the improvement of educational opportunities around the world, particularly for girls and women who will lead the change so many societies desire?
And wouldn’t it be great if we privileged Americans could stop acting like the vapid denizens of The Capitol of Panem (yes, the Hunger Games references do seem apt), cheering wildly for all the wrong things on those big screens before our eyes while horror manifests itself all around.
On this first International Day of the Girl, our sorrow for Malala should become the force of outrage to insist that our time, our talent and our national resources should be better spent on the most urgent concerns of human life.
See: Archbishop Desmond Tutu on child marriage