Two Weeks on and Striking More Than One Chord: Malala - A Fearless Return to Back-to-Basics Feminism

26/07/2013 14:58 BST | Updated 25/09/2013 10:12 BST

Two weeks ago today, Malala Yousafzai, wrapped in the shawl of Benazir Bhutto, arose from the UN Secretary General's (willingly vacated) seat to give a speech that shook the world to its core. On par with the infamous speeches made by her own stated heroes, from Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Malala voiced with all the courage and conviction of an emerging world leader the simple, harsh truths that millions of women and girls throughout the centuries have died - and continue to die - to make heard: simply that the freedom to learn, to read and write, and in so doing become learned women, is one which remains to this day, a liberty denied to over 36 million girls.

In the two weeks that have followed since Malala Day, much has happened. From the emergence of more brave young voices such as those belonging to 11-year old Nada al-Ahdal expressing in no uncertain terms her unwillingness to be sacrificed at the alter of a child marriage and burqa-clad superheroes emerging in Pakistan, to stark reminders that one in three girls in the UK experience sexual bullying by the age of sixteen, to even the Taliban feeling compelled to write an open letter to the very girl they tried to kill - it is clear that Malala's words have struck a chord with millions around the globe.

But there is one particular struck chord that is becoming ever more evident to those of us who openly cite Malala as a symbol of universal heroine-ism: and that, unfortunately, seems to be one of derision and division. I experienced this first hand when, as a part of Making Herstory's support of A World At School's Malala Day campaign, I began asking just about everyone I knew to send in a picture-message of support to the girl fighting for every other child's right to an education.

But to my shock, instead of meeting with a sea of eager nods as I had anticipated, I was greeted with anger, suspicion and even contempt by members of the very communities I had presumed would be most proud of her, voiced in the form of such questions or statements as: "Why? There are millions of other girls like her and THEY don't all use it for publicity like she has! " or, "Ok, so we felt sorry for her when she was shot - but this is too much now!"

It would seem that despite her ordeals, or the fact that she has overcome more trials than most of us will ever experience to not only attempt, but actually succeed, in highlighting to the world the continued, unjust barriers girls face in accessing an education, the very fact that Malala continues to speak out at all is grounds enough for disapproval. Are these expressions of disdain rooted in jealousy? A deep-rooted fear of 'feminism'? Would the same passions have been roused if Malala had been a boy who, following a shooting, went on to campaign for the rights of boys' education?

For my part, watching her speak via live transmission at the Southbank Centre in the company of Sarah Brown and PlanUK's Youth Advisory Board, I knew - like so many of those sitting around me - that I was listening to the words of an unabashed, unashamed, un-fraught feminist: for whether or not Malala defines herself as such, this is what she has come to represent for so many of us who work in the field of women's rights. Crystallising for me what "feminism" means in its most distilled, purest and simplest form (ie fighting for the equal rights of all women and girls), Malala's words heralded a further legacy residual to that of her stated aim of tackling what Gordon Brown so aptly termed, a global "education emergency". That other legacy being to signal a new turning point in the history of feminism which would begin by putting an end to the incessant questions of identity and suspicions that for too long now, have plagued this four-syllable word: a word women have spent decades trying to define, decades trying to move away from, and now, for those of us brave enough to do so, reclaim. Polluted by the muddy residues of over-analysis and endless mis-association to loosened bras, looser morals, Godlessness and over-muscular she-males trying to rid the world of men and their rights, feminism seems to have reached a stale-mate state of self-sabotage governed by a currency of un/ apologetic self-defence (depending upon who you are). In short, for too many, feminism has come to form a dirty spat-out word - a stain from which activists must too often either free themselves or defend to the hilt against those willing to use it as an accusatory bullet to wound any person daring to sport it proudly.

By declaring it time for women to "stand up for their independent and fight for themselves", Malala cut 'feminism' loose from the mire of its own self-inflicted knots and doubts, severed pre-conceptions and stereotypes of what a feminist "looks" like, and - if the continuing 'Malala Effect' stories are anything to go by - reminded us all why the concept, and consequently the word, came into existence in the first place.

In an age when we are still fighting for every girl's fundamental right to an education, to freedom of choice, and safety from sexual / gender-based violence, and where women and girls are being trafficked, prostituted, raped, abused and killed every single hour of every single day in every single country of the world, Malala continues to force us all (even those who see fit to dismiss and scorn her actions) to sit up, take note, and listen to why it is a 16-year-old girl in the 21st-century is still crying out for every girl's basic human rights to be not just recognised but made a reality.

This - to my eyes - is back-to-basics-feminism in action - and it couldn't have come soon enough.