When I found out a couple of years ago that a young girl by the name Malala Yousafzai had been shot by the Taliban for standing up for girl’s education, I, with the rest of the world, was engaged. But it was only when I learned she had enrolled in the school I was previously a student at that it really struck a chord. Here was a girl who was so close to home, yet had risked her life for the freedoms I had always taken for granted. Freedoms that came so easily to me as a Muslim girl living in a multicultural, accepting and tolerant British society. Education was my prerogative. The headscarf covering my hair was my liberty.
After 9/11, everything changed. My headscarf — the Hijab — had become something I actively had to defend. Suddenly the Hijab was seen as a symbol of oppression. As if a man had forced me to dress in a certain way. As if it wasn’t my choice to dress how I felt was right for me.
The extreme misogynistic mentality Malala was subjected to by the Taliban was so alien to the morals I was raised on as a Muslim. A world away from the strong female role models my faith taught me about — Fatima, for instance, the daughter of the Prophet, and her daughter Zainab — who, in a time when women had no voice, gave public speeches condemning oppression and standing up for their rights.
But with Malala so brazenly condemning the extremist Muslim minority, she gave young Muslim women a voice that they didn’t have before. Malala is always seen with a Hijab adorning her head, dressed in modest attire, yet the focus strictly remains on her message. People unquestionably understand that she does things on her own terms — that the Hijab is her own choice. But it’s a freedom for Muslim women like myself too. It’s an unspoken expression that we do not want to be judged for our beauty — something largely beyond our control — but to be valued for our character.
Judgment based on appearance is not an issue limited to Muslim women. Despite the recent resurgence in Feminism, women are still subject to criticism directed at their image in a way that men have never had to deal with. In a 2010 interview, when asked what designers she likes to wear, Hillary Clinton replied, “Would you ever ask a man that question?” After winning Gold at the 2012 Olympics, Gabby Douglas was immediately criticized for how she wore her hair, to which she shrewdly responded, “Are you kidding me? I just made history. And you’re focusing on my hair?” These are not stand-alone events. Too often women are victims to crude remarks that take the focus away from their hard work and achievements and onto these one-dimensional caricatures based solely on appearance.
Malala has surpassed these superficial judgments — she has been given a platform to be respected solely for her message and her inner beauty. Let’s hope our world starts offering other women the same respect.