“…We won’t do that again.”
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Today, if there is justice in the world – and if the Nobel Peace Prize is not to remain a vast and unfunny joke – Malala Yousafzai will be its deserving laureate.
Everyone, it seems, knows Malala’s story: the girl from Pakistan’s Outer Wingnuttia was shot by the Taliban for wanting to go to school and for wanting every girl to go to school. There was the terrible wound, then major surgery, then recovery in a Birmingham hospital, then school in Britain. When Malala speaks, now, something of a Brummie accent emerges from beneath the Urdu. And when she smiles, the slight asymmetry in her face left by the bullet meant to kill her is straightened: perhaps that is partly why Jon Stewart wanted so much to make her laugh. No one, it seems, disagrees with Malala: Malala Yousafzai has the world at her back. Except, of course, for the malcontents who tried to rub her out.
Well, I’m here to tell you that, throughout history, those who wanted (and still want) her dead outnumber we who came after: before the Enlightenment, civilizations that thought it worth sending girls to school could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Whole religious doctrines were premised on not just the inferiority but the stupidity of women, and even in those societies where women were educated, the rationale was often the patriarchal one that it was bad for children to be reared by an uneducated mother: Quintilian, Vespasian’s education advisor, went further, demanding not just education for girls but that women should have ‘the right accent’ and speak well in public. Presumably Quintilian was reincarnated as Lord Reith.
Margaret Atwood wrote one of the great works of dystopian science fiction in The Handmaid’s Tale, a portrait of a country ruled by the sort of men who want Malala Yousafzai dead. One of the reasons the book works so well is because the thousand-year expectation that women should be enslaved because they are stupid and only good for breeding serves as background radiation. It seems real because it was real. Atwood explains:
Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already. Thus China replaced a state bureaucracy with a similar state bureaucracy under a different name, the USSR replaced the dreaded imperial secret police with an even more dreaded secret police, and so forth. The deep foundation of the US – so went my thinking – was not the comparatively recent 18th-century Enlightenment structures of the Republic, with their talk of equality and their separation of church and state, but the heavy-handed theocracy of 17th-century Puritan New England, with its marked bias against women, which would need only the opportunity of a period of social chaos to reassert itself.
Pakistan is a nation in social chaos. My friends in the Foreign Office call it a “near failed state.” And unlike the United States, there is no Jefferson in its history: the theocrats have far more resources to call upon than their liberal opponents, all of whom must make arguments drawing on ideas that were invented in other places: Greece, Rome, Scotland, etc. The dreadful meme—produced within Pakistan and at the top of this post—is indicative: roughly translated, the Urdu says that Malala is the devil, taking money to make Pakistan look bad.
This time, we must teach them to read. The them, of course, is us: everyone female.