- - Thursday, December 18, 2014

As a very senior woman, I am especially interested in the young and the world they inhabit. People have wondered why I care so much about this. I care because the current state of the world is a result of how I lived, what I cared about, what I contributed, how I am leaving it. The current state of the world is my legacy. I don’t think I did such a good job! I’m not proud of the world I’m leaving to my grandchildren. 

And now I’m handing it over to our young people, teenagers and young adults, since they are the ones who will influence the fate of civilization in the next few generations, just as I had my chance to influence my own generation. 

There’s a lot to be downbeat about. The most important news stories of 2014 are painful to contemplate. The world is in a sorry state: the environment, the economy, increasing racial tension, terrorism, endless wars, our dysfunctional democracy, poverty, disease. We seem to be in a perpetual state of fear rather than optimism. Do we have a glut of (bad) news? Are we victims of our own inability to manage the brilliant technological progress we have achieved? 

But enough of that. I’m going to focus on an upbeat story, that of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager who is a beacon of light in an otherwise dreary landscape. 

When Malala was a precocious 11-year-old, the Taliban issued an edict that all girls in her home region, the Swat Valley, be banned from schools. Refusing to follow the order, she began to publish her Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl on a blog for BBC Urdu, in which she chronicled her hope — one that we in the developed world take for granted, the right for all kids, not just boys, to be educated — and her fears for human rights in the face of vicious and brutal extremism. 

When she was 15, two young men, carrying out the Taliban campaign to end all education for girls, ambushed her school bus. As they jumped on the bus, she heard one ask: “Who is Malala?” And then they shot her in the face and head.

Well, they picked on the wrong girl. They tried to shut her up, but that shot was heard round the world. After she recovered from what most thought would be certain death or severe brain damage, she said, “The terrorists made a very big mistake, because I was afraid that they might be able to stop me. But they proved that no one can stop me. My weaknesses died on that day, and a strength was born. So I think I should be very thankful to them.”  

Not even bitterness! Just a greater incentive to work for her ideals. “They only can shoot a body,” she said, “but they cannot shoot my dreams.”

Malala is a now a 17-year-old girl who at 13 said, “I want to speak up for my rights. And I don’t want my future to be just sitting in a room imprisoned in my four walls, just cooking and giving birth to children. For my brothers it is easy to think about the future. But for me, a girl, it is hard, and for that reason I want to become educated and empower myself with knowledge.”  

At an age when most teens fill their minds with more frivolous matters, Malala was becoming an activist for the health, safety, and education of the world’s children, women’s rights, and the fight against extremism. 

The Taliban, the Boko Haram, ISIS and other extremist groups believe that the education of girls and women is against Islamic teachings. Their definition of jihad is that God has told them to murder people who refuse to convert to their religious dogma. Malala’s definition of jihad is to “fight through pens and to fight through your words. Do that jihad,” she said. “And that’s the jihad that I am doing. I am fighting for my rights, for the rights of every girl.”  

Malala has become a global symbol: a little girl who was singled out by bullies who feared her words and tried to destroy her. They didn’t succeed. In October 2014, Malala was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Her activism, her bravery in speaking out, her refusal to be silenced, bore fruit. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari announced the establishment of a $10 million education fund in Malala’s name. Girls in Pakistan can now become literate. 

Malala has become a global role model: Through the simplicity and clarity of her words, by insisting on their right to an education, she encourages other teenagers to spread the word that girls can do anything, be anything, if they are only willing to stand up for themselves. Malala Funds and Malala Fan Clubs on Facebook and Twitter are places where her work continues and proliferates, especially among young people.

Malala credits her activism to the teachings of her beloved father. It was he who taught her that she is stronger than her fears. But there is something else. She follows his example, not just his words. She is proud of the fact that he acts on his principles, not just talks about them.

And so my vote for the most important stories goes to the young men and women, the boys and girls, who commit a part of their lives to making the world a better place — to understanding the problems of the environment, the economy, racial tension, terrorism, endless wars, our dysfunctional democracy, poverty, and disease — and doing something about it! 

I hope that their legacy will be the mending of some our messes.

Barbara Fleisher, EdD, is co-author with Thelma Reese of “The New Senior Woman: Reinventing the Years Beyond Retirement” (Rowman & Littlefield). Web: www. ElderChicks.com


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