Malala Yousafzai, known to most of the world simply as Malala, made headlines first for her brave stand against those who would take away her right to an education, and then for her miraculous survival of – and recovery from – being shot in the head. In her new book, Malala tells her story from her early childhood through to her recovery in a Birmingham hospital. It is a fascinating story, and all the more so as she has lived so much in her sixteen years.
Malala tells her story with the help of Christina Lamb, an award-winning journalist with a long history of ties to Pakistan (her first interview was with Benazir Bhutto in 1987). Despite being ghost/co-written, I sense that Malala’s voice still comes through, especially in the early chapters that detail her wonderment at life and love of her home, the Swat Valley in north-central Pakistan. A true independent streak shows through as she writes, telling the reader several times about Swat’s political past, and how it didn’t formally accede to governance by Pakistan until 1969 (prior to that it was a form of monarchy). She, like the vast majority of people in Swat, is Pashtun which, despite being the second most numerous ethnic group in the country, is often shut out of national power. The population of Pashtuns also create natural connections with Afghanistan, which is majority Pashtun, and leads directly to the problems that began to plague the Swat Valley when Malala was a young teen.
Before the problems, however, she tells the story of her father. His dream, according to Malala, was to build a school for both boys and girls. He felt the education system was inadequate in their village, and he struggled to make his dream a reality. Malala relates a constant stream of money problems, of bribes being demanded, of difficulties finding teachers – but eventually, her father succeeds in building his school, and in time it grows quite large.
Malala becomes a student at the school, and she shows her teen nature by boasting about coming in first place in her classes, and how much she disliked it when people took away that first position from her. Certainly, she does couch it in terms of good, friendly competition, but she tends to come across a little petty, smug when she wins, depressed when she doesn’t. She doesn’t, however, wallow in self-pity. While this might read to some as self-absorbed, to me it comes across as honest. I remember going to check the grade lists when they were posted at my alma mater, and although they were posted by student number rather than name, they were still in alphabetical order so I would try to figure out who my main competition was. Being competitive at school is a pretty normal behavior, and does not make her less for it.
In 2005, the Taliban began to make noise in the Swat Valley – specifically, they began radio broadcasts. At first, they appeared to be concerned with helping people, but they did have an unhealthy focus on preventing women from gaining an education. Malala and most of her friends continued to go to school, although things got progressively worse over the next several years, as the Taliban insidiously took over, beginning to patrol and walk the streets openly, telling stores what they could or could not sell, what women could wear, and who could go to school. They began targeting schools with female students, bombing more than one hundred of them, although usually at night or at other times the students wouldn’t be there. It was at this time that Malala first came to international attention. A BBC Urdu correspondent wanted to find a female student who would write a diary about life under the Taliban (by this time, they were in de facto control of Swat). His contact was Malala’s father, and after searching for an older girl (one backed out due to safety concerns), they agreed to let the eleven-year-old Malala be their diarist. Following her turn writing for BBC Urdu, she and her father were asked to film a documentary by Adam Ellick, a reporter with the New York Times. This documentary further exposed her to fame internationally, but to more notoriety at home. She and her father soon came to the attention of the Taliban, who issued a death threat against her father. Despite the danger, Malala continued to be a vocal activist for girls’ education rights. Although the Taliban had been pushed back into the mountains by the Pakistani military and were no longer in political control of Swat, they still held influence through a combination of their radio broadcasts, the occasional attack or bombing, and the fear that this entailed. It was after this, in October 2012, that the Taliban sent a lone gunman to shoot Malala. He hit her once in the left eye, and hit several of her school friends as well, as they were packed closely together in the back of a bus taking them to school.
The remainder of her memoir is concerned with the difficulties in getting her the treatment she needed, and eventually getting her to a hospital in Birmingham, UK, that had all of the facilities she needed for both survival and recovery. She is very gracious to all of the doctors and nursing staff who have aided her, as well as to the Pakistani officials who bent over backward to get her the help she needed, both in Pakistan and in the UK. She finishes on a very human note. She is, after all, a sixteen-year-old girl who has faced her own death on multiple occasions, and that simply for standing up for what the vast majority of us take for granted: the right to an education.
The writing is approachable and chatty throughout, almost as though you were sitting having a conversation over tea. This makes the book very readable, and tends to elicit a camaraderie with Malala that some memoirs are unable to instill. Her purpose in sharing her story is to show the world just how difficult life is for people under fundamentalist rule, such as that imposed by the Taliban in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. I say people, because while her primary focus is girls’ rights to an education, she does show a wider concern for how people are treated and are forced to live their lives when under constant fear of reprisal – shaming, assault, or worse – for simply trying to live. In doing so, she successfully overcomes her mild form of teenage hubris, and shows that she is a person who definitely should be watched in the coming years. There is always the concern that someone will try to finish the job that the Taliban gunman began, and my sincere hope is that she can hold onto her luck and stay alive to do the work she is obviously meant to pursue. If she is able to survive, I suspect she will become a force in Pakistani politics or in the further fight for girls’ rights worldwide.
The book ends with a glossary of Pashtun and Urdu terms, a timeline of important events both in Pakistan and to Malala’s story, and a brief note on the Malala Fund. This is a non-profit fund run out of New York that is intended to improve opportunities and education for children worldwide through grassroots, community oriented initiatives. I will link to the Fund below if you’d like to get more information.
Steve’s Grade: A-
An interesting and readable memoir, but more to the point, an important book. It is easy to forget, in the comfort of our safe homes and lives, just how dangerous the world can be for a young woman who has the temerity to stand up for her rights, and to speak out. Read this book.
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