Not long ago the new school year started for us across the United States. For my family and I know for many, schedules were shifted meaning earlier wake up times and cranky kids. My Inara, now in second grade in Laguna Beach, California, sighed heavily and expressed her annoyance at both the early rising expected of her in the morning and the interruption to her summer social life. I brushed her hair and told her a story about a girl on the other side of the world who was forbidden to go to school, but risked her life to do it anyway. I told her the story of Malala Yousafzai.
A week later, I was honored to learn more of the young woman’s story at an advance screening of He Named Me Malala, by documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman), opening October 9th across the country. The Fox Searchlight film is a portrait of the teenager’s life back in Pakistan and now in the UK, and it depicts not only what happened the day that a Taliban gunman shot her for speaking out and defiantly attending school, but also the evolution of her family, culture, country, and personal mission. Despite obvious opportunities to be preachy, the film stays on course about the central unifying issue: the importance of raising and educating strong girls to become powerful independent women, and the positive effects that this has and could have on the world.
There were moments, as I suspected there would be, that moved me to tears. The tears didn’t come from shock, sympathy or devastation, but rather from gratitude. Gratitude for a father who broke tradition by celebrating and sharing the birth of a daughter, gratitude for parents who instilled a passion for education in their children, and gratitude for a family that has every right to spread hatred and fear but instead spreads inspiration and strength to all who will accept it.
There were also moments of laughter. Malala is a teenager with two little brothers to torture. To them she’s the annoying big sister getting too much attention and making them do their homework, not the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and an international hero. Still the love in the family is evident and heartwarming, especially between father and daughter. Even when you wonder why this man willingly made his daughter a target, you begin to understand the long-term goal: ensuring that in the end she would get the education she is entitled to and the platform she longed for. When she was asked during a conference call last week what it was her father did to make her this person, she explained, “It’s not what he did. It’s what he didn’t do. He didn’t clip my wings. He allowed me to move forward, even though I am a girl.”
Wanting an even deeper understanding, I have been reading the memoir I Am Malala, choosing passages to read to Inara before bed at night. She and I cuddled on the couch to watch Stephen Colbert interview (and do card tricks with) the young woman last week on The Late Show, and we were both jealous when a friend in New York watched our young heroine speak live at the Global Citizen concert in Central Park. I am proud of my daughter’s interest and have even used Malala’s story in discussions about inequality around the world, including in our own country. It has all been a learning experience for us both. I intend to take Inara to see the film when it is released on October 9th and she is looking forward to it. Because the subject matter can be disturbing the film is rated PG-13, but as we’ve discussed it at length and are reading the book together, I am confident that my 7-year old can handle it. Other parents should take appropriate precautions, but know that it is told from the perspective of a very intelligent and peaceful young woman, and it is at no point unnecessarily violent or disturbing, beyond what it should be in order to be truthful.
The evening after the screening was back-to-school night for my daughter, whose public elementary school overlooks the Pacific Ocean and is surrounded by a state park in southern California. The principal boasted that all classrooms had less than 20 children, and the teacher showed off the iPads and laptops available to each student, all thanks to all of the generous support from the parents and community. While I am grateful that my daughter and her friends have the opportunities they do, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with sadness at the inequality of education. Even within our own country there are children lacking basic school supplies and quality teachers due to lack of funds and interest. As a mother with one daughter and another one on the way, my heart aches especially for the 60 million girls around the world who should be in school today but do not have access to education. It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be.
With the release of this film comes the opportunity to create and spread the #WithMalala movement in support of the Malala Fund. The goal is to enable all girls, everywhere, to complete 12 years of safe, quality education so that they can achieve their potential and be positive change-makers in their families and communities. They work with partners all over the world helping to empower girls and amplify their voices; they invest in local education, leaders and programmes; and advocate for more resources for education and safe schools for every child.
“Do I speak for myself?” Malala asked during our call, “Am I going to use my voice?” She did. Let us join her, and start by visiting the sites, seeing the film, and spreading the word.