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.
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.