It’s unfortunate it took being shot in the face for Malala Yousafzai to gain household name recognition, but she hasn’t let the tragedy behind her story keep her from her goals. If you don’t already know, the Taliban shot Malala in retaliation for her outspoken advocacy of education for girls. She was treated in her home country of Pakistan before her transfer to Birmingham, England, when Pakistani hospitals could no longer provide the kind of care Malala needed to make a full recovery. She and her family have lived in Birmingham ever since, and Malala uses her fame to spread her message of education for all children. In I Am Malala, she tells us the story of her life, a story about beating insurmountable odds and remaining a truly upright person.
Malala opens the book recounting the moments leading up to her shooting, memories that are still mostly fuzzy for her. She then tells us the story of her life. Malala describes the backgrounds of her parents and grandparents, which is integral to her own story. Malala’s father Ziauddin grew up with a stutter his father helped him ameliorate by encouraging Ziauddin to give speeches. Ziauddin was always an advocate for education, realizing his dream of opening up his own school and encouraging children of both sexes to attend, regardless of their economic status. Despite pressure from wealthier parents who didn’t want their children attending school with lower class children, Ziauddin never once wavered in his advocacy for education for all. Malala’s mother, Tor Mekai, went to school when she was six and left the same year, feeling an education was useless when she would have to observe the custom of purdah, the seclusion of women within the home. When she met Ziauddin, who wrote love poems for her, she regretted not having finished her education and remaining illiterate. Malala inherited Ziauddin’s outspoken nature, and her father encouraged her to speak the truth as a way to fight against ignorance.
Malala recounts that when she was born her father openly celebrated her birth, which is unusual in their Pashtun Pakistani culture where the birth of a girl is usually seen as a tragedy, not a celebration. Ziauddin insisted on treating Malala exactly as he would eventually treat her younger brothers. Meanwhile, Malala noticed her mother spoiling her first-born brother in ways she would never spoil Malala. Instead of expressing pure jealousy over this, Malala states it more as an observation of how her mother subscribed more easily to cultural norms than she and her father. Malala laments the treatment of women in her culture. When parents are expecting a baby, they hope for a boy and a girl is a disappointment and a burden. The culture expects women to stay indoors, hidden from men who are not their relatives. Women’s education is rare because women are supposed to stay home and care for their families.
Culture is something Malala discusses in depth. Malala grew up in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, a beautiful valley known as “the Switzerland of the East” that was a popular tourist destination. Being close to the Afghanistan border, Swat has a large Pashtun population. Hospitality and honor are important to the Pashtun people. They will never say “thank you” if you do them a favor because they plan to thank you by repaying you in the future. The same goes for revenge. While many of their neighbors clung strictly to cultural norms, Malala’s father often encourages friends and family to sort out differences through talking rather than a never-ending chain of revenge. People in the same family can be competitive, often with cousins mercilessly trying to best each other. After such a conflict put a rift in Ziauddin’s family for years, he settled it by donating his blood to his cousin’s ailing wife. Having a father who questioned things instead of blindly following along with the crowd had a great impact on Malala.
Pakistan was formed as a Muslim homeland and Malala is a practicing Sunni Muslim, which had a profound effect on her upbringing. Just as Ziauddin questioned some Pashtun practices, he easily questioned the radicals who started popping up and promoting propaganda after 9/11. He encouraged Malala to learn the Quran by word, not by the interpretation of her religion tutor who was prone to radical misinterpretation. When self-proclaimed mullahs, scholars of Islam, broadcast their views across the Swat Valley, Malala wonders why her neighbors, and even her mother, believe what they say. The Taliban arrive in Swat demanding that girls stay home, banning girls from school, insisting that people dress in certain ways, and all the while Malala thinks, “The Quran doesn’t say any of this, where are they getting this from??” Townspeople eagerly offer up their riches to the Taliban, which only fuels their ammunition for their reign of terror over the nation.
Malala continues going to school until a full ban on female education goes into effect. The Yousafzai family flees Swat for a few months to stay with relatives until the army supposedly clears out the Taliban, but return to find their home changed. The army seems to have picked up right where the Taliban left off, and government corruption leaves Malala wondering if the Taliban have more influence than the government lets on. Girls can attend school once more, but tensions are still high. She and her father continue to give speeches lamenting bombed schools and declaring all children have the right to an education. Her father begins to receive death threats and Malala worries about her safety, but decides it’s more important to stand up for truth and the benefit of the people than it is to hide.
After Malala is shot, she miraculously recovers thanks to doctors and surgeons from Pakistan and England. She is sent to England to receive better care and her family comes along a few days after, and they haven’t been back to Swat since. Malala yearns to return to the beautiful valley she left, but knows it is still too dangerous to return. She will spend her time until then touring the world, giving speeches, telling her story, and inspiring others to fight for their right to knowledge. After all, ignorance is probably our greatest enemy.
I debated whether to read this for a while since I usually like fiction more than non-fiction, but my students read an article about Malala in Language Arts one day and I decided I definitely had to check out the book. First off, this is not a super-easy read. I believe Malala has a children’s edition and possibly a middle grades edition of her book, but this edition is chock full of cultural, historical, geographical, and religious information that might be overwhelming to some readers. I majored in history and took quite a few courses on Muslim and Middle Eastern culture so I had some background in what Malala was talking about, but it was still a little overwhelming at times. I wish a map had been included of the places Malala discussed. I know I could easily look up a map, but I like it when there’s a map in the book already labeled with the referenced towns and regions. If you’re not interested in culture, religion (specifically Islam), geography, and history, you might not enjoy 95% of the book.
Malala expresses her love through her writing: her love of her valley, her family, her religion, her culture. She loves all of it but is able to see their faults, and the faults of humanity. She never expresses anger about what happened to her, rather she pities the ignorance, brainwashing, and corruption that lead to her shooting, and more importantly the restriction of education for girls in Pakistan and across the globe. She is obviously intelligent, being fluent in three languages, usually being at the top of her class, and seeing through the propaganda of religious extremists by being able to analyze religious text. Part of the reason why extremists are anti-intellectual is because they know educated people won’t fall for their crap. Malala and her father are able to see straight through the Taliban and shady government officials. She makes sure to address the common Western (especially American) view that what the Taliban say about the Quran and Islam is the gospel truth. When the Taliban ban female education because they determine it is un-Islamic, Malala retorts that nowhere in the Quran does it say anything like that. The Quran implores Muslims to seek knowledge, to question how the world works. When the Taliban demand that women wear burqas, Malala insists there isn’t a single verse demanding that women cover themselves from head to toe. People can twist the words of any religious text to make it suit their needs, and that’s exactly what the Taliban do. Malala defends her faith, which brought her and her family comfort and hope through many difficult times.
Malala’s love for her valley makes you feel as if you’re along with her on a picnic by a waterfall. Look up photos of the Swat Valley right now and you’ll be amazed at the natural beauty of the region. You’ll understand why Malala desperately wants to return despite the danger to her safety. The Taliban aren’t the only threat to the people of Swat. Severe earthquakes, floods, and mudslides terrorize the valley. The lack of widespread medical services can lead to outbreaks of cholera. The Taliban and the army have left villages pockmarked with bullets, old Buddhist relics destroyed. Yet this Valley fostered Malala. Malala’s descriptions of all the obvious and the subtle beauties of growing up in Swat makes you feel homesick for a place you’ve probably never been to. She makes you feel like you could and should do anything you put your mind to.
Malala’s story is only one story out of millions of girls denied access to education. The Malala Fund raises awareness and money to help children access the knowledge they desperately need. Check out the link for more information if you’d like to help.
Rating: 4 out of 5 mango seeds
2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge Categories: A Political Memoir, An Autobiography, A Book About a Culture You’re Unfamiliar With