I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
Genre: non-fiction, biography, feminism
I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.
When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.
Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
I Am Malala is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.
I hoped I’d love the book but I merely like it. Perhaps it came too soon and Malala needs more years of advocacy work to add meat to the story and offer more solutions. Now we only get a list of things going wrong and a large historical lesson on Pakistan added by the co-author. While it puts things in perspective the end result is that I see Pakistan as an even bigger mess than before when I only saw snippets of their dysfunction in the media. The constant bombings, natural disasters, people fighting for power and forcing a very bigoted and narrow interpretation of Islam upon people sounds like a nightmare to me especially when these things are combined with masses of illiterate, highly traditional people more loyal to tribal structures from the early 20th century than anything resembling democracy. I get it why they would be suspicious of democracy if their people fail them so spectacularly but at the same time I also see that each group has its own agenda and slandering, intimidating or murdering opponents is nothing out of the ordinary. This book contains a lot of depressing things, so Malala and her family’s outlook on education is even more extraordinary in comparison and a small glimmer of hope.
“His sisters — my aunts — did not go to school at all, just like millions of girls in my country. Education had been a great gift for him. He believed that lack of education was the root of all of Pakistan’s problems. Ignorance allowed politicians to fool people and bad administrators to be re-elected. He believed schooling should be available for all, rich and poor, boys and girls. The school that my father dreamed of would have desks and a library, computers, bright posters on the walls and, most important, washrooms.”
I loved the portrayal of her father and his own struggle to offer better education to the highly conservative and uneducated people. In some way it would be far more interesting to hear his story since he has far more experience and years to draw from than Malala who is only a teenager. She is an important authentic voice and she does point out the work of her fellow students and teachers, but she sadly can’t give us much information about the rest of the country. She does however give us quite a few beautiful quotes about the importance of education and equal rights for men and women. I liked those parts very much. I also loved the portrayal of her mother and the way she helped her community by providing free meals to poor students, even housing them at times. It is this sense of community, of women’s support of each other that I liked particularly. A lot of people are supportive of schools but some are just itching to close down anything that is not a select madrasa (religious school) and those seem to be far more outspoken and organised than the rest. Yet the school trips and other activities for the children paint a far more optimistic picture in the beginning than you’d imagine. Taliban are truly the worst to happen to anyone.
“In Pakistan when women say they want independence, people think this means we don’t want to obey our fathers, brothers or husbands. But it does not mean that. It means we want to make decisions for ourselves. We want to be free to go to school or to go to work. Nowhere is it written in the Quran that a woman should be dependent on a man. The word has not come down from the heavens to tell us that every woman should listen to a man.”
I wonder if books written by Pakistanis from the more developed parts of the land would give us a different picture than what we get of the Swat valley and Pashtun lands. Malala herself notes the difference in women from other ethnic groups and cities when compared with her own Pashtun background. Her own mother is illiterate like many women from these valleys and some of her reactions to events are quite telling about the type of culture they live in. I get the feeling the country is a study in contrast.
“Our men think earning money and ordering around others is where power lies. They don’t think power is in the hands of the woman who takes care of everyone all day long, and gives birth to their children.”
The traditions governing men and women restrict women far more and some of the things done to them in the name of blood feuds, honour or revenge are just horrific. Therefore I found some passages of the book very hard to swallow and the contradictions in the whole Pashtun code of conduct bizarre. The central point is honour but people go out of their way to humiliate you, bully you and you then have to get revenge on them? At that point I already knew this was only going downhill – those kind of attitudes and a deeply rooted mistrust of the government (albeit for a reason) would be like pouring oil on fire when the Taliban came and I was right. It was an unmitigated disaster since the Taliban initial soft-approach propaganda spiel went down like hook line and sinker. The majority of people were in for a rude awakening when the beheadings, whippings, and robbery began. I also can’t believe anyone would be ok with them murdering your neighbours, even if you didn’t like them. And killing children in a school? Yes, lack of education can be safely put on the list of the most lethal weapons of mass destruction because ignorant communities let in wolves in sheep skins. There’s no getting them out of Pakistan now, not if they have sympathisers in the military.
“We all played cricket on the street or rooftops together, but I knew as we got older the girls would be expected to stay inside. We’d be expected to cook and serve our brothers and fathers. While boys and men could roam freely about town, my mother and I could not go out without a male relative to accompany us, even if it was a five-year-old boy! This was the tradition.”
Well, I need to hope this push towards fundamentalist Islamization can change but the current Middle East crisis gives me little to base these hopes upon. Muslims in Europe, too, are far more vocal about their demands for Sharia than they are for democracy and an end to terrorism, or at least this is the general impression we get. The usual bland statements about Islam being a religion of peace are not enough for me anymore and I want visible change; I want to see leaders of secular Muslims, those who believe in European values and don’t force their religion upon non-believers take central stage for once. Education plays a crucial role here but I believe we are failing there with the immigrant populations, or at least with Muslim immigrant populations. I haven’t heard about Chinese immigrants performing mass murder yet, so clearly there is something going on with Islam. People like Malala, who are devout Muslims but who appreciate the values of education no matter its origin are an inspiration. Islam used to be a progressive force that gave women rights when Jewish and Christian women had almost none, so clearly it is able to think outside the box. I’m hoping more people inside the religion will demand change and that no girl will ever have to die or suffer for her right to education.
“We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.”
I don’t think there has been a day I was not aware of what a huge privilege my own schooling is – I’ve always loved to learn and having teachers in the family always made education important. Women’s rights were also a topic of interest, especially once I figured out there were very few women in history books. It makes you wonder, no? I hope Malala achieves her goals and makes her home a better place. I personally hope to become a great teacher in my own homeland and that I will one day proudly point out Malala’s achievements to my students.
“Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow.” Education is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.”