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.
I found myself in the doctor's office the other day, discussing the merits of personal technologies. She was sharing her horror that her ten year old daughter has many friends who already have- and use - cell phones when, she explained, they should be spending their childhood outside playing with each other. It's a common argument, one I hear all the time- that because of technology we (and the we almost always highlights children and youth) are losing our ability to connect with each other.
I actually agree that playing outside with friends is really important for kids. Being outside with a couple buddies facilitates all kinds of learning that a screen just doesn't have the capacity to teach because it's not a living, breathing being. However, it seems like everywhere I turn technology is made to be the villain: boys are so violent because of video games; teenagers are forgetting how to build relationships because they spend all their time online; there are restaurants that give discounts for putting cell phones away during dinner in the name of real connection. Even if all those things were true- and quite honestly, I do think it's great to put away cell phones at dinner, but we are talking about the wrong thing here. I remain unconvinced that technology, all by itself, got up and changed our society. Really we should be worrying about how our boys experience patriarchy and violence, and we should be finding ways to support our teens to initiate strong relationships digital or not, and we should be thinking about witnessing each others' stories. Technology is embedded in our world- and we give it power as we interact with it, use it, wear it, make it- we are in a relationship with technology. And a relationship is built between two (at least!) parties. The chief complaint circulating about tech seems to be that is is ruining our ability (and thus our children's abilities) to be social. What is especially striking about that is that this is an argument that was made by the likes of Plato & Socrates about writing, an argument made about radio when it first emerged, and TV, and, and and.... It's a cyclical argument that we see about most every new technology. Also I'm just a geek who likes techie things and an artist who likes making stuff, and I'm over the technological determinism- where tech is positioned as the most powerful determinant of social and cultural values. We're better than that!
If we're concerned about building relationships, learning how to care about each other and think critically about the world- let's use technology to our advantage. Let's be playful with our digital screens and explore media networks together. Here's one way to build social-emotional learning, that let's kids and adults use cell phones, encourages connection with others, and opens up a space for reflection, critical thought, and growth.
Digital Rose~Thorn Activity
The Rose-Thorn activity provides you and your family (or classroom, or group, or friends) with an opportunity to share your day, reflect on what made you smile and what was kind of tough, and work on good listening and supporting skills.
What You Will Need:
Some people like to set the stage by clearing a space- lighting a candle, ringing a bell, or writing in a journal- before they begin. Each person then needs a moment to think about the roses and thorns of their day. Roses are beautiful, hopeful, joyous, happy, energy-giving moments, conversations, stories, or ideas that can be recounted from the day. Thorns are harder moments- difficult decisions, conversations that didn't go the right way, feelings of disappointment. Sharing both the roses and the thorns of our days allows us to enter into each others' lives in a structured way, and share moments that might have other gone unmentioned.
To think about your rose and your thorn each day, you might draw a picture, write a few words, or sketch a little scene, and then take a picture of it with your cell phone. Take out a few simple art supplies and let your family members reflect. Each person should photograph their rose and their thorn, and then stitch them together with an app that allows you to join pictures into one image. Over the next few days, family members with their own phones can photograph their roses and thorns as they happen and stitch them together in the evening to share. Save your daily reflections- they are so fun to look back on.
Each person should have a turn to share about their images. After they have shared, others can ask questions or make comments. Sam and I have found this to be a great way to connect and to hear about parts of each others' day that would have otherwise gone unmentioned! It's amazing the highlights and the struggles we might otherwise forget. The digital rose-thorn activity gives us an opportunity to engage in a thoughtful way with each other while using our phones- the phones become a tool for connection, instead of a bright screen banished because it's too distracting.
You can see what emerged of this activity when Sam and I did it tonight: his rose was playing music, his thorn was having no time to shower. My rose was making a video of him on my phone singing outside with the twins, my thorn was having so much laundry that I feel like I will never ever be able to fold it all before the next load comes out of the dryer. All four of these were very simple, every day moments- but joy crossed his face as he told me about music-making, and it made me think about the sweetness I experienced this afternoon while I was napping with the twins and we could hear him playing. It reminded both of us that we wanted to sing together with the babies every morning, and then the babies started laughing as we told them this, which made us laugh, which made them crack up even harder. And then we talked about how Sam needs to make time to shower- I know that seems like such a simple task but I promise you, it's not when there are two infants who are suddenly able to crawl and get into a whole ton of mischief (just this afternoon, Luna almost choked because she tried to eat a piece of grass and Sienna discovered I hit the computer cord behind the couch and persistently, doggedly, even- pulled it out, again and again, and put it into her mouth). We talked about how I love discovering beautiful, golden light in my everyday, and how centered I feel when I watch Sam play music with the twins, and about how its really hard sometimes to feel like I am stretched in so many directions that I can't even fold the laundry. It was a great evening of listening to each other, sharing smiles and understanding how each other was feeling. Over the next few days, we're going to snap a few images of our roses and thorns to share-- in both of our cases, the activity allowed us to share experiences and feelings that would have otherwise gone unmentioned. I can't wait till the twins are old enough to share their roses and thorns, as well.
So today, we used our technology to connect with each other and each others' lives. And it was awesome.
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.