Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Prize winning education activist who survived an assassination attempt and has become a world-wide icon for democracy, is only one of many young leaders fighting for girls’ right to learn. Muzoon Almellahan, a Syrian refugee since 2015, is fighting the same fight from Newcastle, England.
Muzoon has been dubbed “the Syrian Malala” by CNN for her work encouraging other girls in the refugee camps to prioritise their education. “Early marriages are the No 1 reason girls stop going to school”, says Muzoon. She met Malala Yousafzai in Azraq. The two became such good friends that Malala, the Nobel peace prize winner who now lives in Birmingham, visited Muzoon in Newcastle last year to welcome her to the UK. “It was the happiest moment of my life when I heard Muzoon was here because I remember the refugee camp and the situation in which she was living there,” Malala told the BBC. “Now we can work together.”
“I met a lot of girls in the camps whose ambition was simply to get married,” says Muzoon. “I would say to them that it’s fine to get married and have kids but the most important thing in your life is to get an education. Girls in my culture get married so young, but not all relationships work. If your marriage isn’t working, education can be a weapon to escape. If you are not educated then nothing can protect you.”
Muzoon has leave to remain in the UK for five years, after which time she can apply to become a permanent resident. But she hopes to return to her homeland, after getting a degree and hopefully training as a journalist: “I want to go back to rebuild Syria. It will need doctors, engineers, lawyers and journalists to make this happen, not ignorant people who have lost hope.” (Interview summary from The Guardian article.)
As a Western woman, encouraged to earn an education and pursue my dreams, it’s hard to imagine the courage it takes to stand up to the cultural pressure to leave (or never go to) school, marry in teen years, and start a traditional family.
In this context, our ideas about heroic leadership need to be revised to celebrate achievements we might consider “ordinary” in a more secular culture. As Yousafzai has become a hero internationally, her story has illuminated others like Muzoon’s, bringing the courageous and contextually radical idea of girls’ and womens’ equal right to an education into the consciousness of many who would not have questioned their cultural “obligation” to marry and reproduce as early as possible.
This leadership as witness, combined with the complicated celebrity leadership role Yousafzai has taken on, shines a powerful, potentially dangerous light on girls who stand up for their right to learn, whether in Muslim countries or as refugees in more secular communities.
In a cultural environment dominated by voices fearing Muslim and/or immigrant culture (see Donald Trump’s repertoire of racist, xenophobic misinformation), such courage is especially important to those of us who need to see the diversity and transformation occurring in the midst of fundamentalist zealotism.
The risk is the girls, and no one else’s. However, they stand, in part, because we stand with them to protect and encourage them. As the Malala Fund, the foundation organized around Yousafzai’s work, says: