Imagine being a young girl in a country that prohibits girls from attending school and having basic societal rights.
This is the world that De La Salle students were immersed in while reading “I Am Malala,” written by Pakistani-born Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, the selection chosen for the school’s “One Book for Social Justice Project” this year.
Malala, a teen, attended a school founded by her father until the Taliban closed girls’ schools. She was targeted for her outspokenness on women’s roles in Pakistani society, including the right to an education, and survived an after-school shooting by militant forces in her Swat Valley neighborhood.
Malala’s diary about her childhood, the Pakistan political system, restraints on women, her parents’ support, survival and recovery in England became the basis for her book. She was the youngest-ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and won the award in 2014.
To identify with Malala’s plight and start a social injustice conversation on campus, the co-ed De La Salle High School separated female students from male students on Dec. 1. Girls were instructed to grab a lunch in the cafeteria and head to the gym but told little else. Boys had no explanation for the separation.
“We wanted them to feel, ‘Why are we by ourselves? How do we process this?’” De La Salle’s public relations coordinator Jessica Atwood said.
“We tried to creatively construct a circumstance which would drive home to our students what it means for a particular group, in this case women, to be disenfranchised and rendered insignificant,” principal Paul Kelly said.
While in “exile,” the girls dipped their hands in white paint and then pressed them on a pink banner (Malala’s favorite color) with the words, “I Am Malala. I am De La Salle,” that will hang on campus indefinitely.
“The banner signifies that the women of De La Salle stand with Malala in her fight for education for girls and children all over the world to have equal opportunity for secondary education,” Atwood said. “Girls are denied education, careers and bright futures (worldwide) just because they are girls.”
The girls initially expressed confusion about the separation and then understanding.
“I think this had a huge impact on educating people about gender equality and feminism,” said junior Alexis Bonura, a member of the school’s Anti-Defamation League. “This is a great way for the future because we have more kids who are educated about the issue.”
Speakers gave insight
Once the banner was completed, girls heard talks from several speakers from Loyola University New Orleans, including college students from Loyola who compared the women of Pakistan and America and discussed philosophies of feminism.
“This is an important story,” said Dr. Patricia Boyett, director of Loyola’s Women’s Studies Program. “Sometimes, we take our own education here for granted while other women are dying for it. … It’s important to talk about the obstacles women face … and gender violence. Our numbers in America aren’t too different from those in Pakistan. One in 3 women suffers domestic abuse; and 1 in 5 is sexually assaulted. The biggest difference is that women in America have a way to get out.”
Boyett also mentioned how America ranks 45th in gender gap among all countries, a ranking based on the wage gap between men and women, educational attainment and women in politics.
“Pakistan has more women in Parliament than we do,” Boyett said. America is also one of seven U.N. member countries that has not passed the United Nations Treaty against gender discrimination.
College presenters Tess Rowland, Hannah Castillo and Victoria Williams learned something while preparing for the De La Salle presentation.
“I see Malala, and she desperately wants to go to school, and I have that privilege and should be taking advantage of that,” Castillo said.
Discussions begin in January
Campus minister and religion department head Tony Behan worked with math teacher Cindy Newman and botanist and biology teacher Jennifer Blanchard on this year’s One Book for Social Justice Project.
Blanchard said the faculty will begin infusing the book and its many themes of social justice and gender inequality into classroom discussions across all disciplines. To further drive home the issues, students will create a special art project based on the book’s themes.
“You hear a lot about the issues going on in the Middle East,” Williams said. “A lot of people in the U.S. who get an education take it for granted. And, then you see women being denied a better future. Why shouldn’t we work to allow all women to have the same privilege? Nothing can stop me. Education is a weapon that is very overlooked. That’s where change comes from.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.