THE GIRL WHO DARED
This book is a self-portrait of Malala Yousafzai, the fearless frontier girl who took on the Taliban
When Malala Yousafzai was recently interviewed by an Indian television channel, the 16-year-old was asked if she was afraid of the Taliban that shot her, that is still threatening to kill her and that has forced her and her family into exile. She replied, “I admit I am a little afraid of ghosts, but of the Taliban, not at all.”
The hype that surrounds Malala can make you wonder if she is purely a media creation. The answer that comes from this book is that the media certainly made her famous, but justifiably so.
Malala has written her book with Christina Lamb, an award-winning British journalist whose contribution seems to have been to give it a structure and effectively interweave the story of Malala and her family with the political events in Pakistan from the time of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the present day.
The result is a story told in a voice that is recognisably Malala’s—simple, straightforward English, with bold, clear statements and narrative. There is a beautiful evocation of her home, the Swat valley, with its rivers, mountains, emerald mine and Buddhist remains—the perfect place for picnics she enjoyed in primary school and for the affluent Pakistanis who flocked to its hotels. Until 1969, when it was finally integrated into Pakistan, Swat was semi-independent and ruled by the Walis who introduced modern education in the early 20th century. Being part of Pakistan brought politicians and officials as well as the judicial system—the former often corrupt and the latter responsible for long delays in justice delivery—that was very different from the tribal system the valley had before.
Through all these changes, however, the people of Swat retained their culture, one that is rich in poetry and music. Malala’s father is a poet whose ambition was to run a school for girls as well as boys. Rebelling against his father’s support of the age-old custom of feuds, he worked to bring peace to the valley. Dismayed by deforestation and the dumping of garbage in pristine rivers, he formed an organisation to preserve the environment. And despite having no capital or land, he set up a school in Mingora, the main town in Swat, and, by dint of hard work and the unfailing support of his wife, made a success of it.
Outspoken and fearless, Malala’s father comes across as the kind of Pathan that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier Gandhi, would have embraced and called his own. Malala imbibed his values. There are many sentences in her book that begin thus, ‘My father says….’ One of the things he said was ‘ nimhakim khatra-e-jan (a half-doctor is a danger to life)
followed by ‘ nim-mullah khatra-e-iman (a halfbaked mullah is a danger to faith)’. Malala’s first-hand account of the arrival of nim
mullahs who came to their valley, destroyed their Buddhist heritage and blew up their schools is well told. It is not a simple tale; it involves the complicity of the government and the army and it involves the gradual takeover of people’s minds. Malala’s father debated with the Taliban and fought to keep educational institutions open. Malala joined him. The media was an important tool in their struggle.
To begin with, Malala was not the sole spokesgirl for what was happening in Swat, but her classfellows went into purdah as they passed puberty. She spoke with passion because being denied education made it all the more valuable to her. She wrote a blog for the BBC Urdu Service, gave speeches and appeared on Pakistan TV. Although the family knew that her father was on Taliban’s hit list, they never thought the militants would come for a little girl.
They were wrong. Malala was shot in the head as she was returning from school. That she survived is for her a sign that her life has a purpose. Anyone who reads this spellbinding book can only praise her courage, and hope that she succeeds.