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Maryam Zar Headshot

Ode to a Girl on the Day My Daughter Turns 13

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On the day my daughter turns 13, I am prompted to think back to when I was 13 and had only been in the States for three years. Though I spoke English, I surely still felt out of place and wondered if I would ever feel comfortable in my new homeland. I am also prompted to look around and recognize a world that does girls a disservice in so many corners and in so many ways that the work of empowering them to be able to elevate to a mere human place with base dignity rather than property to be wholly controlled over a lifetime becomes endless. Dare I also look ahead and hope that the next generation will get closer to this milestone, and that my daughter -- with her dreams of achievement and influence -- will be able to affect the change along with her peers in the free world?

Today, I am the mother of a young girl who has never known a world that places limits on her. When she looks up at the sky, she sees a Milky Way that she understands as formed by science, not divine folklore. When she anticipates her period, she knows it as a physiological process, not a curse from god. When she hears music, she instinctively sings or moves to the rhythm and doesn't see it as taboo. In fact, she sees the breadth of her opportunities as attainable options from which to choose, not limitations bounded by the heavens. Yet she lives in a time when precious few girls globally, particularly the geographic area from which we hail, are accorded the same breadth of opportunity. Indeed, few are even taught the same expanse of possibilities or even the freedom of thought to ponder them.

While I focus on the life of women and girls across the Middle East, North Africa and central Asia, I am often grateful for the privacy of my thoughts. I am aware that they are mine only, and that I am free to think them without the guilt of a culture that limits my aspirations. I'd like to think I have extended that same freedom of thought to my daughter. At 13, she wishes to be a neurologist who also runs a theater program for kids in her hometown and travels to perform medical aid work for needy people around the world. But sometimes she laments that all this will prevent her from being a professional singer or a dancer on a great stage. Were we in a different place, I would have to scold her for the thought of wishing to dance, or sing, or to want to work outside the home -- even as a physician -- without first considering the life of a family, a matriarch or a husband to care for. This is troubling. I can't look away from the sight of millions of girls around the world who will never get a chance to test their wings, because thirteen will bring them the trappings of womanhood, and the first order of business will be to marry them off, not to nurture them as budding young women with endless possibilities ahead.

As we speak, one-third of the world's girls are married before the age of 18 and 1 in 9 are married before they reach 15. Child marriage is a scourge that reaps its destruction generations down the line. Girls who are married off as children cannot attend school. In turn their children are less likely to survive beyond the age of 5 and if they do, they are unlikely to go to school -- perpetuating a cycle that disempowers women and girls and leaves them entirely dependent on patriarchs all their lives. Uncontrolled births exacerbate the cycle of poverty and girls in poor households are more than twice as likely to marry younger. Young mothers also experience more birthing complications that begin with obstetric fistula and end with dying during child-birth. The child born to a dead mother has its own life of misery ahead. Yet we stand by millions of child-brides around the world, excusing the abuse as tradition.

As we speak, there are girls in Kenya fighting against being cut in a horrific yet prevalent tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM). In a civilized world that should repudiate such a degrading practice, we excuse it as tradition and justify it as female circumcision. It isn't. It is the removal of operative parts of the female genitals which serve only to prevent her from sensing. It is also dangerous, painful and humiliating. Yet, we look away.

As we speak, there are millions of girls who are being pulled out of school for a plethora of reasons too lengthy to count, and perhaps to broad to even fathom. Many are denied an education in order to spend the school day walking to fetch water or hiking to fetch firewood. Many will get assaulted, abused or raped along the way. If the rape results in a pregnancy, that girl's life is changed forever. She will have to bear that child, but will remain ostracized from the community as though the rape were somehow her fault, or begotten of her dishonorable conduct. One young girl was maimed with a fistula following a violent rape, and spent the next decade ostracized because of the stench emanating from the tear between her vagina and bladder.

These are the consequences of girls being tasked with the hard work of domestic labor, while boys are given the benefit of schooling. Many girls will be taken out of school to care for younger brothers or sisters, begotten of a mother who had no education and even less control over her own body or the right to procreate. The cycle only repeats, with the tragedy that many young girls who become pregnant cannot even define how it happened. A divine being is said to have wanted it, meant it to be, etched it as destiny, cast it as a curse, delivered it as a blessing -- anything but self-determination and the right to have agency over their female bodies. These are not traditions. These are not cultural dictates that can't be questioned or should be legitimized. These are systemic methods of keeping an entire gender subservient through abuse. Don't look away.

As I raise my daughter to be a citizen of the world -- a person who believes she can be part of the change she wishes to see, a child who deals in kindness not fear, in inspiration not predetermination -- I wish that I could recognize a world where more communities question age old traditions of caste and place in order to shunt off expectations and embrace the possibilities that could change some of our thorniest global issues. Women can be a colossal part of the solution to a world replete with poverty, rampant population growth and increased violence as a means to an elusive end. Women have the power to affect change -- but they need a chance and that chance can only come with education. An entire gender held down with illiteracy and lack of self determination is bound to exacerbate a world that presides now over food insecurity, lack of access to clean water and inadequate maternal care resulting in death or worse.

So today, as I wish my daughter a happy birthday, while I still can't tell her what the world beyond her bubble looks like, I can inspire her to embrace the possibilities. If I succeed, I will raise a confident global citizen who is tasked with not only building a comfortable life for herself and her family, but with helping bring about a better lot for her gender around the globe. Happy birthday to the girl who made everything fall into place for her mother the moment she was born.