Skip to main content

Malala, others on front lines in fight for women

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Special to CNN
updated 8:37 AM EST, Thu January 10, 2013
Malala Yousafzai leaves a hospital Friday in Birmingham, England. She was treated there after the Taliban shot her in the head.
Malala Yousafzai leaves a hospital Friday in Birmingham, England. She was treated there after the Taliban shot her in the head.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gayle Lemmon: Taliban failed to stop education advocate Malala Yousafzai by shooting her
  • Lemmon: Similar attacks on other women and girls trying to reach their goals were fatal
  • Attacks are efforts to stamp out women's progress, rights and potential, she says
  • She says potential of half the population will not be realized if violence is tolerated

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council of Foreign Relations. She wrote "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book that tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs and hope during the Taliban years.

(CNN) -- The girl the Taliban wanted dead has not only survived but was able to walk out of the hospital last week. But other highly publicized, vicious attacks on women and girls have not had such triumphant outcomes.

Malala Yousafzai's ordeal is not over yet: Doctors say the 15-year-old campaigner for girls' education, whom gunmen shot in the head as she rode a school bus in Pakistan, will be readmitted in late January or early February for more cranial reconstructive surgery.

She left the hospital just days after gunmen attacked a van in Pakistan's Swabi District, less than an hour from the capital, and killed six women and one man who worked at a children's community center. Five of the dead were teachers; two were health care workers. The center, a charity, offered a school for girls and vaccinations for polio, among other diseases, along with maternal health treatment.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

Yet another attack unfolded around the time of Malala's release. India is reeling from the death of a woman who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Brutally gang raped, mutilated and thrown from a bus, the physiotherapy student later died in a Singapore hospital. Her name was not made public in India, but her cause electrified the nation. Her father, who sold family land to move his family to Delhi from rural India to help his daughter realize her education dreams, is left heartbroken.

"She wanted to be a doctor and said it was only a matter of a few years and that when she was a doctor (all our suffering), it will end,'" her father told the BBC. "I remember asking her once, 'Who are all your friends?' She replied, 'Dad, it's only my books I am friends with.'"

Malala's next phase of recovery
Malala Yousafzai walks from hospital
Gang-rape case unleashes fury in India
Discrimination begins in the womb

What all of these attacks have in common, along with their brutality, is that they are attempts at extinguishing the talent and potential of women -- or half of the population. In a world that needs every doctor it can find, every educator and politician who is willing to tackle the status quo, these young women offered a glimpse at a brighter future in which all can contribute.

No less than investment oracle Warren Buffett made that very case recently, referring to the United States, which has seen its share of less brutal attempts to hold women back.

"What a waste of human talent; 50% of the talent of the country we pushed off in a corner for almost 200 years," he said in an interview with Melinda Gates. "It is one of the things that makes me optimistic about the future -- we are getting to the point we are starting to realize we need to use 100% of our talent -- it makes me very optimistic, but we still have a way to go."

His words echoed those of the World Economic Forum in its annual Gender Gap Report.

"The key for the future of any country and any institution is the capability to develop, retain and attract the best talent," the report said. "Empowering and educating girls and women and leveraging their talent and leadership fully in the global economy, politics and society are thus fundamental elements of succeeding and prospering in an ever more competitive world."

Until now these horrific attacks on women and girls, attacks I have written about concerning Afghanistan, have been seen as shameful and isolated incidents. But they are a shared loss in a globalized world.

These young women and their legacies -- Malala, who will continue her fight, and the others, who will not -- are on the front lines of deciding what our world looks like. Will young women who speak out on the need for education be stopped or celebrated? Will girls who dream of becoming doctors stay alive long enough to do so? And when will we realize that their battle is one shared by everyone who dreams of a safer, more stable, more prosperous world in which more people have a stake? Perhaps Buffett's words will help enlist more fighters in the cause. Because the economic and human rights stakes are high.

Increasingly the world is recognizing the value and the contributions of girls and women. But progress is slow while violence is tolerated. And as the attacks in Pakistan show, educating girls remains a potentially deadly line of work.

"They wanted to kill her," said her father not long after gunmen shot his daughter. "But she fell temporarily. She will rise again. She will stand again." He was right.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT