It was a shooting that inspired outrage throughout the globe. On October 9, 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was on her way home from school when her school bus was stopped just a few hundred meters from a checkpoint in Swat Valley. A young man boarded the van and asked a single question, “Who is Malala?”
Though none of her schoolmates had answered, some of the girls had looked over at her. The man aimed at her and fired three shots, one of which hit Malala square in the left eye socket. The Taliban bullet was intended to silence the young woman forever, but instead, it only served to make Malala’s voice louder—and this time the whole world was listening. Almost overnight, Malala Yousafzai became the face and the voice of all Pakistani girls who were struggling to get an education at a time when the Taliban was blowing up their schools and demanding purdah or risk violence or even death.
In I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai (with the help of Christine Lamb) bravely tells her story. She talks about how it was like growing up in the beautiful Swat Valley, the Switzerland of Pakistan, and how the Taliban had tried to eradicate all that was wonderful in her homeland—their culture, their history, their art, architecture and music, and the Pashtun way of life.
A Name Fit for a Hero
“I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.” – p.13
When Malala was born on July 12, 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan, her father, Ziauddin, and her mother, Toor Pekai, were over the moon. While most Pashtuns considered the birth of a daughter as a “gloomy” event, her parents saw to it that her birth was properly celebrated. Her father asked the community to throw coins, candies, and dried fruits into her cradle—a custom typically reserved for newborn sons. Ziauddin even insisted on adding Malala to the Yousafzai family tree, which prior to that moment only included the names of male relatives.
He also named her after a revered Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand. Legend has it that when the war against the British broke out, Malalai’s fiancée was among the thousands of Afghans who fought against the invading forces. Like the rest of her village’s women, Malalai took to the battleground to bring aid and water to their troops. When the flagbearer fell, Malalai bravely took his place. She could see that her countrymen were losing hope. So, the young woman took off her white veil, raised it overhead, and began marching with the troops. She cried out, “Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand then, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame.” She died fighting for what she believed in.
That Malala had been named after one of the most courageous women in history is incredibly fitting. She is, after all, a hero in her own right. But the choice of her name also reflects her parents’ incredibly progressive views, especially that of Ziauddin’s. Even as a young man, Malala’s father had believed in the importance of education—not just for the boys of the village, but for the girls as well. His dream—a dream that was realized in the early 2000s—was to open a school that all the village’s children could attend. In I am Malala, we actually see Ziauddin’s struggle to keep his school open and afloat.
Ziauddin’s eloquence, high morals, and commitment to education for all made him a popular member of their community. It also made him a target for the ultra-conservative members of the town. One mullah* (Muslim scholar) in particular, Mufti Ghulamullah, tried multiple times to close down Ziauddin’s school. He claimed, “Ziauddin is running a haram* (forbidden by Islamic law) school in your building and bringing shame to the mahalla* (neighborhood).”
Despite the mullah’s many protests, Malala’s father kept his school open. Time and again, Ziauddin argued and won his case in front of the village elders. But what the family didn’t expect was that bigger trouble was just beyond the horizon. Within a few short years after issues began for the Khushal school, the Taliban hit their valley.
The Rise of the Taliban: Children Caught in the Crossfire
“Though we loved school, we hadn’t realized how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us. Going to school, reading, doing our homework wasn’t just a way of passing time it was our future.” – p.136
When Malala was just ten years old, news broke out about trouble in other parts of Pakistan. Religious extremists had begun banning and destroying DVD and CD shops, attacking cinemas, and harassing men dressed in Western-style clothing. The women were also being forced into purdah—the practice of keeping Muslim and Hindu women covered up and in seclusion. But for the people of Swat Valley, life went on as usual. That is, until the rise of Radio Mullah.
The rise of the Taliban in Swat Valley started out innocuous enough. Maulana Fazlullah, a 28-year-old former pulley operator, began a radio program called Mullah FM. He used his program to voice his very traditional views about everything; from haircuts to vaccination, beard length to the ‘proper way of dressing.’ But as Fazlullah gained a large following, his prescriptions to his listeners became more and more extreme. He began speaking out against the education of women and the need for purdah. He turned tyrannical, urging violence against anyone who disobeyed Taliban laws or dared to speak out against him.
Music, movies, board games, television, and all radio stations apart from Radio Mullah were banned. Dancing was banned. And then the Taliban began blowing up schools and cultural sights. They strong-armed their way into Swat Valley, destroying homes, killing offenders and detractors and dumping their bodies in the town square. They tried to scare everyone into compliance, but Ziauddin and his family would not be silenced.
How One Girls’ Voice Landed Her in Trouble with the Taliban
“If one man, Fazlullah, can destroy everything, why can’t one girl change it?” – p.131
At every turn, Ziauddin spoke out against Fazlullah. He organized peace marches, met up with various village leaders, and created a group that was designed to protect the rights of the community, including the right of all children to an education. He also convinced some of his female students to speak out about how the growing militancy in the area was forcing many of them to drop out of school. Malala, of course, was the most outspoken of the girls.
She was determined to let the rest of the world know how the Taliban was destroying her hometown. Like Ziauddin, Malala placed tremendous importance on the education of girls. Her dream was for every girl in Swat to be free to go to school regardless of their financial situation. So, she spoke out. At first, she did so ‘anonymously’ by writing an online journal for BBC Urdu where she talked about life under Taliban rule. To protect her identity, she opted to write under the pseudonym Gul Makai. But her anonymity was short-lived.
Pretty soon, Malala was speaking out against the extremist group freely and openly. She gave interviews to various local and international news agencies. The awards and the prizes began rolling in. And yet, despite the recognition she received, Malala knew that none of it would amount to anything if her dream wasn’t realized.
“I began to see the awards and recognition just like that. They were little jewels without much meaning. I needed to concentrate on winning the war… We decided to spend the rest of the money on people who needed help. I wanted to start an education fund.” – p.201
And just as quickly as the awards came, so did the threats against her family. Now, what makes Malala’s case especially commendable is how she didn’t go into it blindly. In the book, she talks about how she prayed for strength every day and how she’d check the gates and doors at night to make sure they were locked. Malala’s actions exhibited true courage. As the Nelson Mandela quote goes: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
From Peshawar to Birmingham: The Fight Continues
The day Malala Yousafzai was shot was a day of chaos for the people in Swat Valley. To protect her against further attacks, the gravity of her injuries was kept secret even from her family. She spent the first two days in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Peshawar before being airlifted to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi, where doctors and nurses worked round-the-clock to save her.
The hospital was put into lockdown. Snipers were positioned on the hospital roof and soldiers were posted all over the area. The Pakistani government was determined to find her shooter, even offering 10 million rupees for any information regarding the gunman.
Although Malala was expected to survive, a sudden swelling in her brain forced doctors to perform a risky emergency procedure that included the removal of a part of her skull. The surgery was successful and the swelling went down, but there was still the question of rehabilitation which was bound to take months. The security risk was too great to keep her where she was.
After much weighing of political ramifications and logistics, the government decided to send Malala to the Queen Elizabeth Medical Center in Birmingham—a hospital that specialized in emergency care and rehabilitation. After a few weeks, her family was allowed to follow her in England, where they have since remained.
It took almost three months before Malala could join her family in their temporary lodgings in the West Midlands. A month later, she underwent another surgery to restore her hearing and help reconstruct her skull. Since her successful recovery, Malala has become the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (2014) and has continued her activist work for girls’ education in Pakistan. And though the book may have concluded with her recovery, her fight continues today.
Not a Quick or Easy Read but an Incredibly Important One
At just 310 pages, I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is a pretty slim volume. It’s certainly one of the shortest autobiographies I’ve read thus far. And yet, despite just being over 300 pages long, with a good few pages dedicated to pictures of Malala and her family, it still took me several days spread out in the course of three months to finish the book.
To be clear, it’s a very well-written book, and a definite page-turner from a quarter in onwards. But it did take a while for me to get used to the writing style. Part-history lesson and part-narrative, I am Malala is a highly informative book that intersperses the history of Pakistan’s politics with Malala’s own experiences. The book provides multiple heavy but eminently necessary backgrounders on the changing sociopolitical climate of the country. The shift in tone can be a little hard to read or jarring the first few times you encounter it, but the deeper you go (and the more you understand about her homeland and their culture) the more gripping the book becomes.
It’s a heavy book to be sure, but it’s one that should be read by as many readers as possible. Malala’s story is one that must be told again and again until it generates the force needed to create positive change.