Bookish Broad Strokes: I Am Malala

malalaI have two Kate Spade journals, and it was really hard not to bring home another one when I came home from City Creek this weekend. Mine are both black, in a shout-out to my love of simplicity and elegance. One says “Leave something to the imagination” in a gold sans serif, and the other is a hand-lettered quote: “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” The latter holds a series of terse notes from books I’m reading, perfect fodder for a blog post series. The more you write down what you read, the more you remember. It’s a goal I have, to be able to remember things as keenly as my dad remembers how they moved Abu Simbel when the new dam went in.

Enter my journal, and the things I want to remember about my most recent read, I Am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

1. Malala Yousafzai was named after an Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand—who inspired defeat of the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Malala’s father gave her that name to reinforce his teaching that girls are to be praised and valued in society every bit as much as boys. He has worked for all of Malala’s life to ensure that she understands her value and uses her voice to make her world a better place.

2. Pakistan was created as an Islamic state in 1947 after India gained its independence from British rule. Mohammad Ali Jinnah founded the new country as the world’s first Islamic state with a keen sense of religious freedom in the new territory. A series of overthrows gave Pakistan periods of both dictatorship and egalitarian rule, where citizens cycled between brutal and unfeeling leadership and egalitarian legislation.

3. Benazir Bhutto was the first female prime minister in the Islamic world, and she was eventually assassinated for her participation in the public sphere. Malala takes her example as a call for girls everywhere to feel at ease as leaders and educated thinkers. When I looked up women in leadership across the world, it’s interesting to note that many Middle Eastern countries are well ahead of the United States for women’s representation in government. The United States is below Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq but is only slightly ahead of the quite westernized UAE. Bhutto and other Middle Eastern women representing bravely in their governments really gives me pause about how the west views the east as inherently backward and uncivil toward women as authority figures. We are still waiting for our first woman president here in 2015 United States.

4. In Pashtun culture, white is a masculine color.

5. Malala’s father correctly notes that Maryam is named in the Koran when detractors try to say that women are not named there, deliberately, because they do not deserve a public voice. This is Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, who is a prophet in the Koran. Malala and her family have a knack for pointing out how Islam isn’t one big bad omen for women and shouldn’t be enforced that way.

6. Malala notes that thing about Khadijah—the prophet Mohammad’s first wife—being a once-married, older, savvy business owner, whom Mohammad worked for and adored. It goes to show that there are so many examples of strong women in Islam (like Aisha dictating hadith), and how the Taliban’s militancy often overlooks the positive light in favor of patriarchy and control. The piles of money in the book’s glossy picture spread show why this is a thing.

7. Malala’s pen name for her anonymous blog project was Gul Makai, from a Romeo and Juliet–esque Pashtun tale in which the girl, Gul Makai, plays a huge role in convincing the parents that the union is okay. Malala’s girl power and feminist activism comes from a very informed place and bears nuances that mark her as a revolutionary in world discourse on girls.

8. Against all literary elitism, Malala is both a Nobel Prize winner and a Twilight fan.

9. People can talk all they want about Malala only gaining worldwide recognition because she is a girl who was shot. At the end of the day, the fact remains that she engaged in so much brave activism before she became a target that she scared the Taliban into taking action to silence her. They took away her country and (temporarily) the nerve that made her smile, but they haven’t taken her voice or her faith in a better Islam.

10. Malala’s region of Pakistan experiences what it does because too few people speak up.

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Clutter

I have 92 books on my nightstand. To be fair, I’m slowly working my way through, but with required reading for grad school, and work requests pinging my email every eighty seconds, it’s pretty slow going. A few are nonfiction books I’m reading in between novels that make me cry in the tub about what it means to carry on aboard this hostile, unfriendly speck we call Earth. Sometimes—for sanity’s sake and to re-light the pilot in humanity’s boiler room—you just have to pause 60 pages from the end of Jude the Obscure and pick up Where the Girls Are or Unveiling Kate Chopin. But that only accounts for 3 of 92. And that nightstand is just one of the spots in my house that is literally—not figuratively—overrun with the printed word.

My sprawling book collection isn’t all that bad on the face of things, until you fold in a fierce pack-rat streak, disposable income, and at least a half a dozen bookish thrift shops that I could walk to. (I don’t though—instead I waste fuel, in direct opposition to the green ideology of Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring is about four down in the back-corner pile.) Once a month, or whenever I’ve had a day that isn’t awesome, I take out thirty bucks and see what all I can get my hands on. It really is a trip shopping for books at stores usually praised for their gently cigarette-burned ’70s furniture. I feel like I never really know what I’m going to find crammed between copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and every James Michener phone book ever. And I’m always surprised by what people have decided to give up.

Nestled, as I am, in the conservative Main Street berg of Provo, I always go to the Mormon-run thrift superstore with a hint of hesitation. “I cleaned out everything moving or remotely incendiary last month,” I moan to myself with unfair intellectual elitism. “If I waste my time, I’m bound to be up to my tits in pregnancy how-to’s and DOS textbooks.” Still, I go. I skip the LDS section (because I’ve promised Neil I’ll stop bringing home laughably outdated homemaking tips and Korean translations of The Book of Mormon), but before I’ve made it to the end of the first four-foot section of shelving, my arms are overloaded and I’m dropping shit everywhere. By the end of the three long rows that I carefully scan for gems, there’s always some guy by the magazines who offers—more concerned than anything—to carry my books, or who cracks wise about how I should get a library card. I then edge through the clusters of meandering shoppers and palpable B.O. (which, as an un-showered, pajama-clad freelancer, I’m certainly contributing to) and head to the registers. I separate my finds into price-specific piles to make it easier for the cashier. “Three for $3, six for $2, seven for $1, three for 50 cents,” she says. It’s almost always under $30, yet I walk away with an armload of stuff that has to be double-bagged to avoid my having to pick up a spilled pile of paper and glue and cardboard halfway to my car. My hands are definitely grimier for the experience, but I feel like Bonny of “and Clyde” fame as I hurry away with all the humanity and life that’s printed on those thousands of pages. For less than what it costs to get my nails did or buy a mildly-fancy toaster, I own the ideas that brilliant people have slaved over, and whenever I feel like it I can dig through my overstuffed bookshelves and find that one I bought forever ago and now feel like crying about in the tub.

On the trip before last I hungrily yanked George Sand’s Indiana and the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay from the shelves. I gasped and almost yanked Neil’s arm out of alignment once when I saw Silent Spring, complete with a retro-patterned 1960s ex-library cover. I’ve seen countless books I already have, and surprisingly lots that go along with my feminist lit bent. Book hunting in the heart of Conservatown has given me things like Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, Ella Cara Deloria’s anthropological Native American narrative Waterlily, a Chicana poetry anthology, the writings of Aphra Behn and Phyllis Wheatley, feminist literary criticism, Adrienne Rich, and the whole of Virginia Woolf minus The Three Guineas.

This cornucopia of intellectual gender studies and quality women’s literature is fairly opposite from what I expected of a town that is known as the Traditional Gender Roles capital of the reddest of red states. But that’s just another bullet point on my practical gender studies self-lecture tour: stop thinking in stereotypes. Just because the town is full of by-the-book Bible types doesn’t mean that these people aren’t smart. I’m always fighting that stereotype when non-Mormons are surprised that I went to BYU—”But, you’re so smart”—and even though I spend quite a bit of my time defending where I went to school as a scientific and intellectual font of knowledge, with one of the best libraries pretty much ever, I still buy into that crap about how a culture that pushes traditional families and stay-at-home wifery must be entirely backwards with regard to its intellectual habits. True, I have met quite a few Mormons who forget what they learned in BYU lecture halls about evolution being a thing, or bell hooks having a point about feminism belonging to more than just rich white ladies. But for the most part, this town has a remarkable population of people who know what’s out there and make informed decisions. In short, people who read. Which is, after all, what being religious is really all about.

I think my compulsive reading—and need for cheap books that I could write all over—sprang from the Mormon thing, or maybe it was just natural that I started to discover the world around me while I happened to be in college. The idea of religion taught me—if nothing else—that it’s important to engage with a text instead of just dragging your eyes over the pages, with one eye on Road Rules, so you could say that you’d read something. After all, religion is one of those things that we came up with, along with agriculture and government and cave paintings, to help us put some order to things so we could see beyond the cycle of birth, toil, and death. When we started folding those solutions into literature, we captured a unique power to sort things out in ways both more individual and universal, all at once. You can read a good novel the second, fifth, or eleventh time and learn something completely new about life or yourself, and people are literally giving these things away to musty boneyards filled with junk.

The guy by the magazines is definitely right about the library card (though I do have one). But while I can, I’ll be the crazy lady who fills every available surface with second-hand books that smell like cheap paper and someone’s basement. Even though I look at my 92 bedside reads (not to mention the rest of my hoarde, from paperback thrillers to the classics) and confront the impossibility of ever reading everything I want to, I know I’ll keep adding every time I see something promising. There is sure to be a time for everything, even DOS. My to-read list will always get longer, not shorter. But I’ve decided that’s a good thing. Better there be too many thoughts and dreams on paper, infinite like our own star-dust makeup, than too few.

Move over, Lisa Simpson, ’cause I’ve got a new hero

For my girls’ studies class this week, we were assigned to watch the 2012 documentary The Interruptors, featuring nonviolent activist and my new hero Ameena Matthews. I won’t lie—the film’s a tough watch. The story centers on interpersonal violence and homicide in the incendiary Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, which is the site of daily shootings and—interesting tidbit—the homeland of the creepy 1890s serial murderer from The Devil in the White City. It’s a tough neck of the urban woods, and the documentary shows some unique community organizing efforts at quelling violence when the traditional tools aren’t enough.

It’s an understatement to say that people in this neighborhood deal with elevated levels of violence. On a good day, you can hear shots ring out down the street, and shit gets stolen from cars with a regularity that gives certain sections of town a George Miller feel. I’m an Illinois native with a father and brother who regularly work union carpentry and plumbing jobs (respectively) in Englewood and other rough Chicago climes. Their experience confirms what I saw on The Interruptors. People shoot at each other. People threaten. People are also shot at and get threatened. It can be a scary and tense place, and it’s a lot of people’s home.

Enter the Interruptors and Ameena Matthews, concerned mediators whose goal is to re-educate and stop violent situations before someone gets killed. This group felt a little different from what I’ve typically thought of as a neighborhood watch group—many in the group are current or former gangsters. Their message isn’t to get rid of their alliances or their gangs’ crime. It’s to save lives, pure and simple.

Ameena Matthews is a youngish mother who patrols Englewood in a hijab as a proselyte for her group’s philosophy of interpersonal understanding and nonviolence. Coming as she does from a devout faith system, she could easily harangue her audiences from a soap box, but she knows that won’t work. What she, and her group, does smacks of vigilante justice with a little bit of Gandhi and Biggie Smalls thrown in. She starts off by agreeing with young people who threaten to kill each other over a five-dollar bag of weed. She’s been where they’ve been. She knows what it’s like to get caught in the typical crime pattern of “just one more big score,” she knows that you have to command respect, and she knows what that thinking does to people. She knows where the violence comes from, and she’s simply had enough.

The film shows Ameena and other activists hitting the streets to spread the word that it’s not worth the risks to kill over turf or money or women or anything, really. The group locates the violence problem as learned behavior, what an epidemiologist in the film calls a problem of “bad behavior, not bad people.” Ameena stands amid a group of squabbling Chicagoans and places her hand on a young boy, asking what favors we’re all doing this kid by resolving conflicts with blood. She asks, if he makes a bad choice and ends up in prison for life, is that on him, or on all of us? To her and to the group, common ground, education, tolerance, and a simple attitude of “it ain’t worth it” are the right tools to combat violence in a part of town where even the cops are scared to go.

As my screen dipped to black at the end of the film, I saw my reflection in my shiny iMac monitor (which felt an awful lot like one of those childhood books that ends with a mirror and says, “How about you?“). I come from a safe, small-town neighborhood, even though my family often works in unsafe urban neighborhoods, and I live in one of the lowest per-capita municipalities for crime in the known universe. The most jarring sign of neighborhood crime for me was that one embankment that got tagged and then immediately re-painted by the city. It’s just not in my backyard on a daily basis, so it’s always been easy for me to think of interpersonal violence as a distinctly urban problem, something that police officers and legislation can fix. As I grow though—and dig deeper in graduate work and a Malcom X-ian desire to make a library my alma mater—I’m starting to read and absorb more personal stories from the front lines of urban violence that show me how and why these things happen, and how it’s not something we should just throw cops at. In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson interviews southern migrant and former sharecropper Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who at one point in the book discusses her participation in her neighborhood watch group in Chicago. Ida Mae talks about buying her first home in Chicago after working like crazy for Campbell’s, recounting the white flight panic that devalued homes in her neck of town. What was once a happy and safe neighborhood turned quickly into an area that social bigotry and racism devalued and morphed into a site for under-policing, little urban maintenance, and plummeting home and business values. As Ida Mae grew into retirement, she watched from her window as kids she knew bought and sold drugs, committed theft, and fought in the streets. She had the unique perspective of watching all of this happen over a period of decades. So when she stood at her community watch meetings, she located the fault on how we raise our kids and on what generations of disenfranchisement can do to people. She regularly starts a dialog with the violent types and other criminals prowling her neighborhood, knowing that it’s the system that’s broken, rather than the people trapped within it. For Ida Mae and for Ameena—both certifiable bad asses by my estimate—the tools of change don’t come from incarceration or preachiness but from mutual understanding and mediation. These activists teach us to think of violence in a different, and actually effective, way. It’s bold. It’s inspiring. And, as their progress shows, it just might work.