Monday, October 22, 2012

Virgin Martyrs

She's getting better.  She'll need a lot of rehabilitation, but she may eventually recover her faculties, say the Scottish doctors who are caring for her in a hospital that specializes in the treatment of soldiers wounded in Afghanistan. 

Malala Yousoufzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for espousing education for girls, wants to become a doctor.  Her father thinks she has a talent for politics.  If you have heard her speak in the warbling English of the Indian sub-continent, you know he has a point. 

Have you seen her face?  Blazing Byzantine eyes under assertive eyebrows, and the cheeks of a child.  She's only fourteen.

Her age and those eyes and that fierceness bring to mind my own patron saint, Eulalia of Barcelona.  She was a year younger than Malala when, in the fourth century, she marched to the palace of Dacian, the Roman consul who was carrying out the emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians.  Unlike other virgin martyrs of the times--Agnes and Lucy, who died defending their chastity--her cause was purely political:  she told Dacian that he should leave the Christians in peace.

In response he: 

put her in a nail-studded barrel and rolled her down a hill that today bears her name;

cut off her breasts;

nailed her to an x-shaped cross and tried to set her on fire;  and

when the fire wouldn't catch, decapitated her.  According to legend, when she finally died a dove flew out of her mouth.

It's lucky for Malala that the Taliban have guns, which are quicker than nail-studded barrels, and that Scottish doctors have the means to heal her.

But basically the two stories are the same:  two girls on the cusp of puberty, virginal in the sense that the adult of world of compromise and cowardice hasn't yet touched them, seeing clearly what is right, what is wrong, and what needs to be done.  Little soldiers, striking terror in the hearts of their upper-class, educated parents, and a responsive chord in the hearts of millions.

Seven centuries after her martyrdom, from her marble sarcophagus in Barcelona's gothic cathedral, Eulalia inspires the city's children to courage.  And because she was still a kid when she died, the annual celebration on her February feastday features giants and dragons processing through the ancient streets, and all kinds of fireworks and games.

I hope no doves fly out of Malala anytime soon.  I hope that she will be loved and celebrated into her old age.  And that she will some day be revered throughout Islam and beyond as the patron saint of a new generation of educated girls. 

2 comments :

  1. I love that Diocletian is one of your tags here. I did not know of St. Eulalia, although I know about many of the virgin martyrs of that era. This whole story, the modern one, is so awful and hopeful and empowering at the same time.

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  2. Diocletian doesn't get nearly as many tags as he would like these days.

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