Born free

At 16, Malala Yousafzai is a teenage ac­tivist for girls’ rights to ed­u­ca­tion. In IamMalala, we learn that she was, per­haps, born into the role.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb Lit­tle, Brown & Co, 352 pages, non-fic­tion Re­view by S. INDRAMALAR star2@thes­

BY Oct 10 last year, the whole world knew of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-yearold Pak­istani girl who was shot in the head at point blank range by the Tal­iban gun­men a day ear­lier.

Malala was in her school van about to go home af­ter school. Her crime? Ac­tively ad­vo­cat­ing for the rights of girls’ ed­u­ca­tion in her na­tive Pak­istan.

In­stantly, Malala be­came a hero – the voice for many girls the world over who are be­ing de­nied their ba­sic right to ed­u­ca­tion.

How does a 15-year-old have the courage and con­vic­tion to stand up to a mil­i­tant regime known for it’s bru­tal­ity against women?

In her re­cently pub­lished mem­oir, I Am Malala – The Girl Who Stood Up For Ed­u­ca­tion And Was Shot By The Tal­iban, we find out how.

The book, which was writ­ten with the help of Bri­tish jour­nal­ist Christina Lamb, tells how Malala came to be the brave young girl that she is.

She was in­flu­enced greatly by her fa­ther, Zi­aud­din. A teacher and ed­u­ca­tion ac­tivist him­self, Zi­aud­din was the son of an imam who in­her­ited a deep love of learn­ing from his fa­ther, a much re­spected or­a­tor in the vil­lage where they lived. Zi­aud­din had to work hard to earn praise from his fa­ther, a se­vere man who had high ex­pec­ta­tions of his son.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the Je­han­zab Col­lege, Zi­aud­din worked as an English teacher. But he longed to start his own school where the stu­dents would be en­cour­aged to have in­de­pen­dent thought; a space where open-mind­ed­ness and cre­ativ­ity would be priced above blind obe­di­ence.

He had barely any money but he was un­de­terred. He took loans, held down mul­ti­ple jobs and lived, with his fam­ily, in a tiny room to ful­fil his dream – the Kushal school for boys and girls in Swat Val­ley where Malala was born.

Much of Malala’s mem­oir is about Zi­aud­din and his story, for the young Pash­tun girl is very much a prod­uct of her fa­ther. His ide­olo­gies were passed down to her and his sto­ries be­came hers. She grew up in his school and ed­u­ca­tion, nec­es­sar­ily, be­came her life.

“The school was my world and my world was the school,” she says.

Zi­aud­din lav­ished at­ten­tion on his first- born and never treated her any dif­fer­ently from his sons, never deny­ing her any op­por­tu­nity. While his wife was il­lit­er­ate (her hus­band later clar­i­fies in a in­ter­view with broad­cast jour­nal­ist Chris­tian Aman­pur that she can read her mother tongue), Zi­aud­din never de­nied Malala an ed­u­ca­tion, even when the Tal­iban were shut­ting down (or burn­ing down) girls’ schools and stop­ping girls from go­ing to school.

“Moniba and I had been read­ing the Twi­light books,” writes Malala.

“It seemed to us that the Tal­iban ar­rived in the night just like vam­pires. They ap­peared in groups, armed with knives and Kalash­nikovs....”

Zi­aud­din re­sisted the con­trol of the Maulana Fa­zlul­lah, the Tal­iban leader in Swat Val­ley who was sys­tem­at­i­cally forc­ing girls out of school and im­pos­ing re­stric­tions on their lives.

Zi­aud­din’s dis­sent made his a well known fig­ure in Swat Val­ley. The Tal­iban ear­marked him as a trou­ble­maker but oth­ers looked upon his courage with awe.

Malala in­her­ited this courage. She hid her school­books un­der her shawl and en­tered the school through the back en­trance.

By the time she was 11, she was giv­ing pub­lic speeches (writ­ten with the help of her fa­ther) about why ed­u­ca­tion was so im­por­tant. She was also writ­ing a blog for the BBC (un­der a pseu­do­nym, Gul Makai) about be­ing a school­girl un­der Tal­iban rule, with the en­cour­age­ment of her fa­ther.

She was al­ready an ad­vo­cate for girls but she was also still very much a young school girl: com­pet­ing to be the top stu­dent in her class, spend­ing hours styling her hair and read­ing vo­ra­ciously – from young adult books like Twi­light she moved on to nov­els like Tol­stoy’s Anna Karen­ina and the like.

In­ter­spersed with Malala’s story is the story of her land – a his­tory of Pak­istan and the po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious tur­moil that shaped the na­tion. It is story of the Swat Val­ley in which she grew up and of her peo­ple, the Pash­tuns, who were forced to move out of Afghanistan.

I Am Malala isn’t quite a mem­oir. Rather, the book shares the story of a girl who was for­tu­nate enough to be given the gift of equal op­por­tu­nity and free­dom by her fam­ily de­spite the crip­pling forces of re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion around her.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing story and an easy read, for the most part. The writ­ing is clear and fairly de­scrip­tive.

The best parts of the book are when we hear Malala’s voice – as a young girl who can’t get out of bed in the morn­ings, who plays with her cousins when they meet once a year dur­ing Eid.

This is when the book comes alive, for we see pieces of her in­domitable spirit and her cu­rios­ity. We see her strength and her per­son­al­ity.

But th­ese mo­ments are in­ter­spersed with a much older voice that some­times speaks in plat­i­tudes. Per­haps that’s be­cause the book is ghost-writ­ten.

This isn’t a mem­oir and it shouldn’t be one. I Am Malala is the back story about this brave girl who took a bul­let for her be­liefs.

The at­tempt on her life has in­ad­ver­tently put her in the spot­light. All of a sud­den, af­ter a tense pe­riod when doc­tors were not even sure how she would re­cover from her in­juries, this girl was speak­ing in front of world lead­ers, in front of TV cam­eras on talk shows and news broad­casts. She was nom­i­nated (the youngest per­son ever) for the No­bel Peace Prize, even.

Ap­proach­ing this book as a mem­oir raises ex­pec­ta­tions of an in­sight­ful and in­tro­spec­tive nar­ra­tive of ide­ol­ogy.

But per­haps this is ex­pect­ing too much. For as much as Malala is a brave and in­spir­ing young girl, she is still only 16 and still find­ing her voice.

And though she’s pas­sion­ate about the role of ed­u­ca­tion in im­prov­ing the lives of girls like her, she is yet a child whose life is still, hope­fully, un­fold­ing as it should.

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