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.

A Life in Sticky Notes

“I’m trying to be friends with Lera,” Jenny said to me with gravity. “She’s becoming a prep, so she’d be a good person to get attached to now instead of later.” A few of us sat in an upstairs play room, pajama clad and slathering on layers of glittery nail polish faster than the previous ones could dry. We had a pizza coming. The little brother was off to bed. We were twelve.

To hear me tell about it then, I would say I was the ugly girl with no friends, nothing to say, and zero prospect of getting a boyfriend. Ever. Looking back though, I need at least all my fingers and toes to account for the girls I was close enough with to garner frequent sleepover invites or throw together an impromptu game of night Ditch ’em. I had a handful of girls who made up my Tier 1, or Gold Level, friends—a few I’d known since kindergarten, and one I’d met in the third grade—and there were always others caught in the ebb and flow of middle-school circle hopping. We were a modest but happy grouping, and we looked on as the preppy girls spent summers together at the exclusive town RV club or returned from group shopping trips at the far-away and middle-class posh Fox Valley Mall—the one with an Abercrombie and a Sbarro. We were popular in spirit only—we had friends, but not the “right” friends.

It’s a pretty common story for small-town folk like me. With scarcely a hundred kids to a grade, my fellow grown-ups-in-training and I saw the same set of kids since the days of finger paints and nap time. Once in a while, a new student would move in, and the popular kids would harness the glow of this exotic human being and make her one of them. By middle school, the allure of someone new turned to threat, and new kids quickly fell in with the burnouts—losers, everyone called them. It was just a label, every bit as descriptive as “the kids with blue shirts,” and until I heard the word applied to my best friend, I never gave its meaning a second thought.

“I’m a loser, and I’m fine with that,” Tiffani had said. But she wasn’t. She just saw herself as part of the label because she wasn’t in with the popular kids and didn’t buy into their polos and Doc Martens. Thirteen years old and already she was self-defining based on what the center of power chose to name her. But she was cool. She played softball, painted murals, and slayed everyone at Mario Kart. She was funny and kind, and hearing her use the preppies’ word to describe herself, and any outsider, as Less Than made me want to punch all the polo shirts in the world.

With the start of freshman year, we finally blended with other grades, and the social lines began to blur, but only enough to muddy things. Now, instead of clothing, boy-girl relationships and partying seemed to be the new litmus tests. I started as Band Geek and became Tease when I got my first boyfriend. Eager to ditch the tease, I became Slut—who put out with her boyfriend—and then switched over to Goody Goody when Slut didn’t feel right. I tried my hand at art but dropped it when my mother and I agreed that I had always been Music Girl, not Artist Girl. It was like walking through an air tunnel filled with sticky notes, hoping desperately that facing the wrong way for a second wouldn’t plaster on the words that sounded like insults.

What I realize now—and didn’t then—is that I didn’t have to be any of those things if they don’t fit me. It’s society that scribbles all those words onto tiny fluorescent squares and throws them out to whoever falls in the line of fire. I’m still Band Geek, but now people think it’s sort of neat that I used to run around a college football field in a wool suit and stupid hat, blowing movie themes and Gustav Holst through a hunk of brass. Tease and Slut are more like, “I’m the one who decides who and when.” Goody Goody means I try to be smart and level headed, but I still do things I shouldn’t if I feel like it. Artist Girl doesn’t have to churn out frame-ready sunsets in oils—instead, she can draw up the serious book covers and occasional pot leaf illustration that separate pre-literate eras from ours. And she can do that while getting all sentimental about how Wax Fang’s La La Land is the best album you’ve never heard and then switching gears to bitch about how nobody appreciates Anne Brontë. To live is to embrace every scrap of multiplicity and contention that comes with growing into your own, and if done right, being a total scatter brain can really feel like a win.

So who I was to everyone had a lot to do with relational dynamics. On the same day I could have been a loser, or popular, or weird or funny, depending on who’s watching. Back then it meant everything to have those labels to hold onto, like raking together fistfuls of passable words made you a worthwhile part of the collective experience. But today I’m all those things and none of those things. I’m just a person making her way, pausing now and then to cross out a word and write in my own. My pen, my decision.