By Madeline Marriott ’24

For many people, public figures are a source of inspiration from afar. Fatimata Cham ’23 had the opportunity to let one of her role models, Malala Yousafzai, know just how much of a difference she has made in her life. 

Cham and Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for women’s education who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts, appeared together on the seventh episode of season 2 of the Apple TV+ show Dear… . The show features celebrities, including Oprah, Spike Lee, and Stevie Wonder, reading letters from people they have inspired.

At age 15, Yousafzai was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban in 2012 on her way home from school after speaking out against the group’s ban on women’s education. Since then, she has spoken in front of countless world leaders, campaigned for educational equality across the globe, and written a bestselling book. 

Cham, who is from the Bronx, New York, has been inspired by Yousafzai since first hearing about her activism in middle school. As a Muslim woman, Yousafzai provided representation Cham rarely saw in the community. “Growing up, it was hard for me to see representation of Muslim women in the media. It was always the same storyline over and over again—Muslim women are oppressed, and they don’t have control over their lives,” she says. “With Malala, I used her as a source of inspiration to say, ‘Yes, I can do this work. I can fight against gender inequity.’ I can speak out against it even if it means that people may not be as supportive of it as a Muslim woman.”

Cham was contacted about the project via Instagram direct message. After a round of video interviews, Cham was cast on the show. The next step was writing her letter. “I wanted to get across how intersectional a lot of the work is, especially with environmental justice and gender inequality,” she says.

Cham also wanted to highlight Yousafzai’s influence on her life in higher education. “In my personal experience, higher education was not something that people in my community valued as much, at least for young girls. There’s a cultural perception of what young girls should be in life and what they’re worth, and I really wanted to get that across in my letter.” 

After workshopping the letter in editing sessions, Cham flew to Los Angeles for two days of filming. “We got filming right away. It was hard for me because I’ve never filmed a show before, but it was a really nice environment,” she says. 

For Cham, the chance to have Yousafzai read her letter feels surreal. “I can’t really wrap my head around the fact that she knows I exist. People go a lifetime without ever being able to tell a public figure that inspires them that they’ve inspired them. It was kind of a full circle moment for me. I feel reaffirmed in my work because I know that there’s someone out there who does similar work, who supports me in my endeavors.

“Her being a hijabi is really important for me, too, because there’s a lack of representation in media of Muslim women wearing their hijabs or wearing their cultural clothing,” Cham says.

Yousafzai’s work also provided Cham with a new perspective on the American lifestyle.  “As an American Muslim woman, a lot of things can be taken for granted, because in America with public education, everyone has free access to education, but then you have girls that physically cannot go to school, and it’s not a choice,” she says. 

This understanding pushed Cham to look into issues within her own community. “That was a source of inspiration for me going further into my work, because I started learning about issues of early childhood marriage in my community, and how it’s so normalized there because of the fact that they perceive young girls to be a burden almost,” she says.

Apple TV+ producers selected Cham for her ongoing activism work, which has received national attention. In 2020, Cham was invited to perform a reading of her poem titled “Hope” at American Leadership in Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, a joint online Brookings-UN Foundation event. Cham, who was the webcast’s youngest presenter, joined high-profile political and corporate leaders from throughout the nation at the event.

Here are a few examples of Cham’s advocacy work: 

  • Founder of Muslims Matters: Online community founded to amplify the stories of muslims around the globe
  • Cofounder of Safeguarding people at risk: Online community designed to improve safeguarding systems for all people
  • GlobalGirlhood: Community Manager working to amplify the voices of BIPOC women and their stories.
  • YMAN BGE Cohort member: “The Youth Mentoring Action Network launched the Black Girls (EM) Power Program with the aim of curating transformative education, wellness, and leadership development spaces for Black women and girls. This year we are launching our national fellowship as part of that work. Annually, we will provide a cohort of young Black women change agents with two essentials; RESOURCES and REST. Resources in the form of a stipend, leadership development opportunities, and mentoring from our amazing Sistah Circle. Rest in the form of regenerative retreats focused on offering them opportunities to refuel and recharge”.
  • 2022 Cantu Beauty Women’s Empowering Nations Global Cohort Selectee

 

Cham is available for interviews. Contact Lafayette’s media relations team.

Watch the Episode

  • The College community is invited to a watch party to see the show. Join Cham in Grossman Library Thursday, March 31 at 4 p.m.
Categorized in: Class of 2023, Diversity, Featured News, News and Features, Students

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