Malala is now a household name: her work to ensure all children are able to is nothing short of extraordinary. So what’s Malala got to do with new ways of thinking about feminism, digital networks, and gender justice? Malala- and how she came to be a household name in the current social-political environment- has lots to teach us about how feminism is changing, and the high-profile girls leading the way.
But before we get to Malala, I want you to think about to just before her story was front and center, to Nike's initiative The Girl Effect. They produced a ton of very moving videos beginning in 2008 that suggested girls were the key to development progress and success. These videos primed our social networks for someone like Malala to come along: they made the girl right front and center in development practice- championing her abilities and potential while simultaneously heaping enormous responsibility onto the shoulders of adolescents. The subtext of these videos was Girls you rock. Now save the world. Girls, you're amazing and empowered. Now use that power to fix your community. I wouldn't be the first to raise my eyebrows at the way these videos seem to carefully remove the responsibility of corporate entities to end environmental destruction by celebrating girls' ability to plant trees. It's an issue of highlighting how we think about particular issues. And Nike- funding The Girl Effect- is holding the highlighter, framing our knowledge. Remember these videos?
So what's it got to do with Malala?
Just after these videos began circulating, Malala began blogging. Beginning in 2009 at age 11, Malala Yousfazi blogged for BBC about her life under Taliban occupation; on October 9, 2012 at age 15 she was shot on a school bus. Since her shooting, throughout her reconstructive surgeries in the UK, Malala’s public advocacy efforts have made her a global brand. I'd like to suggest that the broader culture circulating around how we think about gender created the environment in which Malala could become a household name. Malala's image instantly conjures up her extraordinary story, it stirs feelings of educational justice and it inspires us all to fight for the simple right to education for all girls- indeed, for all children.
Malala's activism surrounding gender and education has produced a frenzied following with the UN dubbing her birthday, July 12, Malala Day: "a day for children everywhere to raise their voices and be heard...and say to the world that we are stronger than the enemies of education and stronger than the forces that threaten girls" (see more here). In October of 2014, she was celebrated a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for the work she has done advocating for girls all over the world, including for girls affected by the ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, girls learning technology skills in Kenya. The fact that Malala is from the global South and that she works on educational issues for girls in the global South is in fact, very significant. Malala rose to fame at a time when ‘the girl’ has become central in shifting international development politics (most development agencies run girl programming). Focusing on girls in international development has "come to constitute a broader policy turn and to achieve a high level of public prominence" (Koffman & Gill, 2013, p. 86). So many different factors- social, political, digital, developmental- all coalesced in order to bring this one young woman- already blogging about her life for the BBC at the time of her shooting- to fame.
Simultaneously, campaigns like Always ' #LikeAGirl have made splashes with viral videos about girlhood. The girl power language that appears in these sorts of videos appears also in development programming- girls are critical in facilitating economic and social progress. It's almost as though #LikeAGirl provides a template for the rest of the world: "look what our girls can do, this is what you're aiming for," the #LikeAGirl video seems to say. It's a message from the global North to the global South- encoded by one of the most major corporate entities, ever. It is out of this culture of girlhood and change- spun with hopefulness for gender equity and buoyed by corporate dollars- that the soft-spoken, brilliant, and courageous Malala Yousfazai emerges.
So what? Malala- and other young, high profile girls and women who have emerged from this spiderweb of relationships as leaders and advocates- have partnered with major corporations, non profits and development agencies in order to get the word out, get the world excited and yes- to make change. These high profile girl activists have made an impact as their messages go viral- and their partnership with very big companies is central to their success. After all, it was Malala’s engagement with the blogger-sphere through her blog on BBC that enabled her public activism after her attempted assassination.
This is a new kind of relationship in feminism: one in which corporate entities enter the social sphere through corporate responsibility. It seems like Nike's TheGirlEffect built a prototype model for how to feminism in this new era- and in this new feminism, girl activists, young women with media prowess, pots of corporate money, and expansive social networks co-mingle and depend on each other. We are only just now witnessing this template for doing gender activism as pulses through our system- as our girls and young women take whatever funding they can find to do their work, as corporate platforms celebrate certain voices and carefully don't shine the spotlight on others. The next few years as girls and young women continue to demand change will be instructive but for now, I think we can be assured that we are watching something new unfold, and that feminism still has lots, and lots of work to do.