HE NAMED ME MALALA: A Father Gives A Daughter Her Voice

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary film, He Named Me Malala, on the life of 18-year-old Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate and activist for the education of girls, has opened in theaters to mixed reviews. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will. I’ve been thinking about the part a father plays in whether a daughter loves or hates herself as a woman. Whether she has the courage to speak her mind.

Some reviewers ask the rather provocative question: why did Ziauddin Yousafzai name his daughter, Malala? After all, her namesake the Afghan Malalai of Maiwand was killed in war before her wedding day. Malalai passionately pressed Ayub Khan’s army to win the attack on British-Indian forces in July 1880. This taking a stand and putting herself in the midst of battle led to her death. Could Malala’s father wish such a fate on his daughter, these reviewers challenge?

Yet, there’s a different point of view. Malalai of Maiwand is not unlike the goddess, Athena, sprung from her father’s head. Athena didn’t die in war, of course, but she too was the sponsor of heroic endeavor, courage, and strategy when it came to war. Athena, like Malalai of Maiwand, is the picture of a woman who claims her power, a fighter against hostile forces. Isn’t that Malala Yousafzai?

We now, as women, have a fight on our hands against retrogressive forces. The irony isn’t lost on me that this film was released the same week the House committee attempted to discredit Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, and defund the organization. Cecile Richards, too, stood strong for truth against sexist attacks on women’s access to healthcare, pro-choice, and reproductive rights.

It’s harder for some women than others to speak out against oppressive forces, in the world at large and in their own minds. Oppression gets inside women, you know, sets off an internal voice that makes them hate themselves or believe they don’t have rights. It’s not impossible, though, to change that. It’s what I help women do in therapy. It’s the lesson Malala teaches us. This is her father’s gift to his daughter.

So, I disagree with the naysayers about Malala’s name. I don’t believe for one moment that her father carelessly put her at risk. I think, instead, he prepared his daughter for life. He equipped her for what he knew would be her fight. For her rights and her identity. He – with the name he chose for her and as her father – gave her permission to have a voice.

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