“All I want is education and I’m afraid of no one” said an 11 year old Malala Yousafzai, whose comments three years later cost her with a bullet to the head. What was her crime? Nothing more than defending her basic rights. Malala’s refusal to climb down in the face of death threats from the Taliban not only challenged their gender based discrimination, but broke the ancient code of silence (the ‘shut up and put up’ code) enforced upon girls. Despite the danger, she refused to be unvoiced. Malala demonstrated that nothing is more powerful and influential against the misogynistic and extremist narrative of the Taliban than the voice of a young girl.
Malala’s struggle for equality resonates with many British Muslim women in the UK too, where some face cultural, ideological and societal barriers. Two thirds of Muslim women are economically inactive compared to a quarter of all UK women. 33% of working age Muslim women have no qualifications and only 9% have a degree. As a Muslim woman activist having worked voluntarily within communities for 20 years, it is clear that there is a culture of misogyny within some traditional and conservative communities. It disheartens me that today, despite Britain having some of the best equalities legislation in the world; some British women are denied basic freedoms including the right to choose a marriage partner or to pursue further education due to restrictive cultural beliefs. During a visit to Britain, Samar Minallah, a Pakistani documentary filmmaker and human rights activist who supported Malala’s work, was shocked at how entrenched many of the same negative cultural beliefs were being practiced right here among some Pakistani communities.
There is also an increasing extremist ideological narrative. A discourse that bars women from leadership roles and discourages her participation in public life. It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been a lack of Muslim women’s leadership within British Muslim organisations and mosques and why they remain one of the most under-represented politically. The lack of women’s rights and the code of silence imposed on women doesn’t just exist in tribal villages in Pakistan, it is alive and well, in some communities in Britain and I can’t help wonder what Malala would think if she discovered that such attitudes can also be found among British Muslim communities too.
Malala who is currently receiving medical treatment in the UK is an inspiration to young British girls, she has become an icon and a role model by challenging negative cultural practices and a narrow interpretation of faith that have remained unchallenged for decades. Malala’s message is a powerful one: we don’t have to accept gender based inequalities, there is always an alternative, but it is up to each and every one of us to speak up and to break the code of silence.
Here at Inspire we hope Malala not only encourages a generation of girls to advocate for their rights but that we, as a country also lend our voices too and fully support their campaign of equality and justice. Extremists despise women’s voices, freedoms, and autonomy and we should support young girls and women who challenge this and who are fighting to reclaim their dignity. Together we must all work towards ensuring that the rights of women, whatever their cultural or religious background are never compromised.