On October 9, 2012, Taliban gunman in the Swat Valley province of Pakistan boarded a school bus, asked for 15 year old Malala Yousafzai by name, and shot her in the head.
Her crime? Wanting an education.
In the months preceding the attacks Malala had defied Taliban orders for girls in the region to stop attending school and had begun to blog for the BBC about her experiences and the importance of education for girls. Her candid descriptions of the Taliban’s fear tactics and her public struggle to continue attending school caused her to be singled out as a purveyor of obscenity and an “influential resident” by local Taliban militants. Three of her friends were also shot in the attack.
Three days later UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the attack on Malala abhorrent and cowardly. “The terrorists,” he said, “showed what frightens them the most: a girl with a book.”
Halfway around the world, Olivia Curl and Lena Shareef, undergraduates at American University in Washington D.C., were listening. They decided that if girls with books and internet connections were that scary and powerful, they could use it as a force for social change. They decided to collect as many images of girls and women with books as possible and post them to Facebook and Twitter. Two days later they launched #girlwithabook, a social media campaign designed to raise awareness about the global crisis in girls education.
Two years and more than 500 images later, the #GirlWithABook movement has gained international attention and momentum. The power and impact of their collected images, of girls and women from all walks of life holding books and signs saying “I stand with Malala.” have been recognized by organizations such as the National Women’s History Museum and the Half the Sky Movement.
Recently, Malala became the youngest person ever to be nominated for and receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since it’s founding #GirlWithABook website has branched out, addressing all kinds of women’s issues, from Emma Watson’s brave speech on feminism and the acidic backlash she received to rape culture and how women are portrayed in popular culture. Last month Curl and Shareef were invited to the United Nations in New York to meet with Malala and share their story and unique perspective on girls’ rights on UN radio. They also launched an ambitious bid for grant money through National Geographic’s Expedition Granted program to travel to 12 twelve countries in as many months documenting barriers to education for girls. The project made it to the final ten out of more than 600 initial proposed projects but failed to gain enough votes to receive funding.
Curl and Shareef take that setback as another challenge. They still take their inspiration from Malala, a vocal advocate for political and cultural activism through social media. At their meeting at the UN she told them, “What you are doing is really important, and I really, really encourage you to keep doing what you are doing.” The new goal, to fund their project the same way they began, using social media, a Kickstarter for the project is in the works. “Our goal is to do a Kickstarter to fund raise for the first three parts of the documentary, Nepal, India, and Pakistan. The idea is to investigate the primary issues regarding education for women and girls and highlight community groups that are creatively addressing these issues. We also want to document what education looks like for these girls, what challenges and barriers they face in education and what it means for the rest of their lives. We believe that education for women directly impacts all the major humanitarian issues we face in the world. Presenting the challenges these girls face will humanize the issue and communicate the importance of education for girls and women on a national scale. We believe that we have a compelling and interesting project and we are going to make the documentary happen. ”
What lessons have the #GirlWithABook founders learned so far? Girls matter. Your voice is important and you have a powerful platform right in front of you in the form of social media. Use it.
To participate in the #GirlWithABook movement, check out their Facebook, their Twitter, and find their website at girlwithabook.com.
Ruby McConnell is a writer, dancer, and choreographer living and working in the Pacific Northwest.