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The Feminist Life: Malala Won’t Use the F-Word

A new column exploring women’s rights, promoting gender equality, and confronting sexism

On October 9, 2012, I had just returned to my New York City apartment in between classes at Columbia Business School when I saw the headlines: “Taliban Gun Down Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights.” Enraged and hopeless, I felt that the world had imploded and the promise of a better future—of equality between men and women everywhere—was dimmer than ever.

Back then, I had no idea that the then-unidentified girl would survive, let alone become a global crusader fighting for the right for girls everywhere to go to school. For Pete’s sake, a few weeks ago she even won the Nobel Peace Prize. I never could have anticipated I would one day sit 10 feet from that girl—Malala Yousafzai—as she talked to Ronan Farrow at last week’s Forbes Under 30 Summit.

While Yousafzai was candid and at times even wry (My favorite quip: “In Pakistan, I had eight or nine books in my 15 years, and I was thought to be the bookish girl.”), what was more striking was what she didn’t say. “Would you consider yourself a feminist?” Farrow asked. “Well, I fight for women’s rights,” Yousafzai began, “and I believe everyone has equal rights as men have.” She then meandered, reiterated her stance on education for all, and after a minute or two, concluded a rousing speech without answering the question.

Horrified, I realized that Yousafzai, the great emissary who emerged from near-death to fight for the rights of girls around the world, was not going to proclaim herself a feminist. I wondered if her handling of Farrow’s question—so adroitly evaded, so practiced, perhaps even canned—was the work of a PR advisor. Why would she be coached that way?

The more I thought about it, the clearer the answer became: In 2014, “feminist” is such a divisive word that identifying with it would only hinder, not help, Yousafzai’s global campaign. “We won’t force you to use the term,” Farrow relented, turning to the audience. “Does it sound like feminism to you? Show of hands?” The isolated cheers from the 1,000-person audience, positioned in stark contrast to the applause and shouts that punctuated Yousafzai’s answer, said it all: The term “feminism” did not seem especially popular, even among this group of forward-thinkers.

At first, I felt dejected that the girl who bravely spread a message of female empowerment was reluctant to publicly call herself a feminist.

Then I realized, maybe Yousafzai is right. Why polarize an audience if you can instead inspire them to act collectively? It seemed from the response to Farrow’s question that the audience at the Forbes summit was divided on the word as well. Yet Yousafzai was by far the most popular and emotional draw in a lineup that included Lauren Bush Lauren, Afrojack, and a Warby Parker co-founder. I saw in that room of innovators and disrupters, as they clamored to get closer to the world’s youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner, that it doesn’t matter what you call equality as long as you’re rallying around it.

Yousafzai doesn’t declare herself a feminist, and, judging by the influence she wields and the momentum toward gender equality she inspires, that may be ok. I just want her to keep on fighting. But we still need feminism to remind us that sexism—subtle or overt—has no place in the society we’re building. As for me, nearly twice Yousafzai’s age, I’m still a feminist through and through, and that’s not going to change.

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