How Should We Respond to Malala?

October 29, 2012

On October 10, a wave of revulsion swept the globe at the news of an assassination attempt on a 14-year-old girl. While riding home in a school van in the Swat area of Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban militants. Her crime? Speaking out on behalf of education for girls. Wanting, with all her heart, to go to school.

How do we, as educators, as faculty and administrators within the world's finest education system, respond to Malala? Two possibilities immediately come to mind. First, we can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses of Pakistanis—women and men, schoolgirls and leading Muslim clerics, tribal elders in the very region where Malala was shot and residents of Islamabad—in condemning this despicable act. Second, we can dedicate ourselves anew to the goal of women's empowerment and the critical role that education must play in that process.

In both cases, we will also be affirming that things are moving forward amid the social disruption that has defined these early years of the 21st century. In ways both unsettling and promising, the seismic political and economic shifts of the last few years have undermined social structures that have been in place for centuries. The Arab Spring has ignited hope for the spread of democracy. The free flow of information on the Internet has allowed new and compelling voices—such as Malala's—to be heard.

Where things are headed is not yet clear. Backlash, retribution, and conflict are in ample supply. But so is the possibility of understanding one another in new ways and building societies that acknowledge and move forward through the strengths of all their citizens. Disruption causes fissures that sunder older structures but also open pathways to new ones.

We are at a moment of critical—and this time global—social rethinking. And this is particularly true for women's advancement. As Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn so compellingly argued in their book Half the Sky, the drive for gender equity is a defining issue of our times.

Malala's courage has focused the world's attention on the importance of women's education in fostering that gender equity. As educators, we must respond. It is time for colleges to step forward as actors in this drama. We are part of this great moment of social transition, and we have a role to play.

The drive for greater gender equity is, of course, a theme that has animated my own institution, Bryn Mawr, since its founding. But we are certainly not alone in our concern for advancing women, nor in our power to pursue that goal in new ways. The social disruptions of the last few years combined with the increasing number of young women pursuing higher education have set the stage for what many see as the next wave of feminism, this time empowered by global interaction and collaboration.

The disruptions have exposed fault lines and shed new light on inequities. Governments threatened by change have sometimes responded with repressive actions. Those who would advance gender equity have felt the force of that backlash, which sometimes extends even to individual women who are simply trying to improve their lives. Egyptian women protesting sexual harassment have been brutalized by mobs. Even before the murder attempt on Malala, Afghan girls had been attacked with acid and poison as they attempted to attend school.

Despite such personal risks, women are often in the vanguard of the changes now occurring. Those of us in the West have drawn new inspiration from what has been happening globally. Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia have exerted powerful leadership for nascent democratic movements.

Women are also frequently at the helm of nonprofit organizations concerned with development, sustainability, and human rights. They are prominent in rotating-credit and microfinance efforts, often the key to empowering the world's poorest women. Women are igniting online activism, drawing attention both to violence against women and to public-health problems.

Such valiant efforts have focused a new lens on the advancement of women, exposing possibilities not yet attained and reminding us that no country can progress if half its population remains excluded from knowledge, opportunity, and decision making.

Even in countries where there have been great advances, political office commonly remains closed to women, while workplace structures hold back those who would combine career and family responsibilities. American colleges have recently been brought up short by the work of Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues at Yale, who have shown that American science faculty demonstrate a pervasive bias against female students. In many other countries, even the most basic steps to advance women have not been taken.

That is why the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which seek to reduce poverty and eliminate barriers to economic development by 2015, make gender equality and empowerment of women one of eight universal targets. U.N. data amply testify that discrimination remains an impediment to women's access to education, work, economic assets, and government participation, while violence against women undermines all efforts to tackle those issues.

It is also why CARE, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, now emphasizes working together with poor women as key to the tasks of improving basic education, preventing the spread of disease, improving access to clean water and sanitation, expanding economic opportunity, and protecting natural resources. By working with and through women, CARE finds it can help entire communities escape poverty.

If we are to continue recent progress, we must develop ways to sustain women's hard-won political and social gains, expand economic opportunity to those still struggling to emerge from poverty and powerlessness, and build the pipeline of female leaders.

We in higher education, as incubators of ideas and educators of students, can play a central role in that process. But our mandate is even broader. Fortunately, so are the tools in front of us. We have the possibility of a truly global conversation on women's empowerment that advances all our thinking.

The internationalization of higher education creates crosscurrents that are reshaping disciplines, bringing more voices to the table, and opening access to more students. We can—and must—use internationalization as a source of interconnectivity that empowers us all. The possibility of a global feminist movement is in front of us. The powerful reaction to Malala's plight in Pakistan itself is instructive to us all, and a testimony to the importance of developing a women's movement that acknowledges local differences and includes all voices.

That possibility coincides with another remarkable development. Since 2008, for the first time in history, over half the college students throughout the world are women. As those students graduate, they will constitute an unparalleled force for women's advancement. Their sheer numbers will change their societies in significant ways. If connected to one another across borders, if educated on issues of importance to women, and if given the tools of leadership while students, those women can turn this phase of the women's movement into a tidal wave.

And the connection between women's higher education and women's advancement is clear. In the United States the suffrage movement was undergirded by an effort to provide higher education of the highest quality to women. The women's colleges founded in the mid-to-late 19th century graduated cohorts of students who went on to lead the move toward women's suffrage and advancement. But it was not only an American phenomenon. A year after Bryn Mawr opened, in 1885, Ewha Womans University was founded in South Korea, followed in 1889 by Tsuda College, Japan's first private college for women.

The goal of advancing women is certainly not limited to women's institutions (although I do believe we have a distinctive expertise to bring to the conversation). And, whether small or large, coeducational or single sex, all colleges dedicated to that goal can play a critical role.

There is so much we can do. We must:

  • Educate young women to become key decision makers in all walks of life, to understand the connection between women's advancement and their intended careers, and to approach such issues through global understanding and collaboration.
  • Support fledgling institutions that open their doors to women in nations where they are still badly underrepresented, through collaborative program building and teaching.
  • Support elementary and secondary schools in educating girls, remotely when necessary, and creating a pipeline of girls who have access to the education that will shape them into leaders.
  • Ensure that issues of gender equity and women's advancement thread their way through the curriculum for all students. There is no nation where this agenda is finished.
  • Create classrooms, both face-to-face and virtual, in which faculty and students from different nations develop a broad, cross-national perspective on these issues, rethinking assumptions through dialogue.
  • Create internships and other forms of experiential learning that enable students to deepen their expertise and understanding of the issues faced by women in different cultures.
  • Offer workshops and institutes for emerging women leaders around the world, such as those being mounted by the Women in Public Service Project, a collaboration that the U.S. Department of State started last December with Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Wellesley.
  • Build networks of like-minded institutions and organizations around the world, with which we can form partnerships for research and projects connected to women's advancement.
  • Reaffirm our strong voices and use our positioning and our experience to take up the cause of women's advancement as powerfully as we have done in the past. We need to keep this issue in the public consciousness.
  • Bring together thinkers and policy makers to shed light on difficult problems. For example, in December, Bryn Mawr will host "The Next Wave: Disruption, Transition, and a New Global Era for Women's Advancement," a conference during which women from across the globe will consider how to engage emerging leaders in women's advancement.

Progress in the advancement of women is not straightforward, but it is inevitable. There are challenges and obstacles on the path to full equality, so now is not the time to stand on the sidelines. Colleges can educate female leaders in numbers never before possible, can inspire all our students toward greater gender equity through the shining examples of bold women, and can build a global conversation that enriches us all.

As individuals and as institutions, we owe our best effort and deep commitment to the opportunity in front of us. Let's make sure that Malala's courage, and that of thousands like her, does not go unrewarded.

Jane Dammen McAuliffe is president of Bryn Mawr College.