Permitted to learn

“You are loved.”

I first said these words to Nora while she was in utero, cannonballing through her prenatal development. They came from a rush of emotion as I searched for a way to express the fierceness of my love for our unborn daughter. For the joyous unknown of her.

Soon, she will turn two. She cut her teeth and learned to run. Confident, watchful, she waits at the periphery of anything new before moving in. Her development is a wonder, constantly evolving. She is still fiercely loved, of course, but our language has expanded. You’re Christ’s child. You are strong. You are intelligent. You are trusted. You are respected.

“Go, learn,” we’ll say. “Not every girl enjoys the same encouragement.”

I am Malala

Malala Yousafzai recently accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. At 17. What she has accomplished. . . !

Before that Talib boarded her school bus and shot her in the forehead, she was already blogging against the Taliban’s systematic oppression of girls’ education. All through her painful recovery, through death threats and intimidation, she was not silenced. Even now, trying to quantify the importance of her ongoing advocacy and obvious success is daunting: the Nobel Prize looks small by comparison.

On her 16th birthday, less than year after the shooting, Malala stood in front of the UN and stared down her own fear and that of millions of oppressed girls. She challenged every nation to honour education as a basic human right, regardless of gender, and to crush ideologies that stand against it: “The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.”


Yet even our heroes are not beyond scrutiny. On the homepage of the UN’s Global Education First Initiative, Malala holds up a placard with the #strongerthanfear hashtag in bold, black letters. She does so with her head covered.

Malala was asked about wearing hijab and the veiling of women: “It’s a woman’s right to decide . . . if a woman can go to the beach and wear nothing, then why can’t she also wear everything?” Some women talk about covering up as liberating, reclaiming a lifestyle free from the lecherous eyes of men. A few of my former Kuwaiti students who chose hijab spoke of it as empowering, but always with furtive looks around them, and always with low voices.

Education reveals hijab’s dubious origins and oppressive status within Islam, making it difficult to reasonably argue that hijab is an empowering reality. As such, Malala’s participation in this fragmenting ritual should make anyone who claims her as a feminist hero pause, educate themselves and decide whether she is being hypocritical, weak, culturally insensitive or, to be fair, none of the above.

There are some, however, who will refuse to do so because they are fearful that what might be revealed might fragment or shadow her image or, worse still, cause them to question themselves. Christians do this, too; we avoid prosecuting and learning about our toughest issues because we worry that our very faith, our salvation, is at risk.


Malala has been compared to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel – a memoir of her journey away from Islam. A fascinating comparison: Ali renounced her faith while Malala is still a practicing believer. Understandably, emotions in the Muslim world are high when Malala’s future faith prospects are discussed, especially the possibility of her leaving Islam. Like Christians, Muslims often lack the social language to explore the abandonment of belief or the renunciation of one’s faith without resorting to fear or panic.

Much to the satisfaction of those for whom education is the natural precursor to any of the -ism’s that take God out of the equation, prominent atheist Richard Dawkins gleefully tweeted, “Of course Malala is religious now but give her time, she’s only 17 & getting the education she fought for on behalf of girls like her.”

But is losing one’s faith the worst outcome? I’m not sure. This distinction might instead belong to the perpetuation of a frightened, unlearned faith that ignores the scriptural assurance that God is – and our faith can be – unbreakable against anything we could learn. One that falls back on the easy safety of assumptions, platitudes and dogmas, repeating them without knowing or learning what they really mean. One that spreads in this manner across generations, discouraging true discourse and discovery, shadowed by ignorance.

“Go, learn,” we might say instead. “Not every believer enjoys the same encouragement.”  


  • Brent van Staalduinen

    Brent spent six years in the Middle East and Asia teaching, writing, and trying to make sense of the borders people create. A graduate of Redeemer University College and the Humber School of Writers, he is now working towards an MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. He works and lives in the Westdale neighbourhood of Hamilton with his wife Rosalee and baby daughter Nora. For more information, follow him on Twitter@brentvans or visit www.brentvanstaalduinen.com.

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