No doubt you remember the news story from 2012 about a 15 year old girl, Malala Yousafzai, who was an outspoken advocate of education for girls in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban. I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot by the Taliban is her story, written by herself and coauthored by journalist Christina Lamb.
The book was published about a year after the shooting and the prologue opens with the events of that day. Then the story backtracks to Malala’s birth and includes the history of her family as well as her beloved Swat Valley in Pakistan.
Normally the birth of a girl is not celebrated by her people, but her father looked into his newborn’s eyes “and fell in love,” saying he knew “there is something different about this child.” He himself was “different from most Pashtun men.” He married the girl he fell in love with in a land that usually arranged marriages. He confided in her and discussed things with her though most men in that culture considered that a weakness. Even though he was poor and not from a ruling family, he had a passion for education for both girls and boys and opened schools. He was outspoken on many issues, thus earning him respect among many in the community, but anger from those who practiced a stricter view of Islam.
The Taliban’s rise to power in the area was both fascinating and chilling. A charismatic leader swayed many through radio programs, but his ascendancy tightened the Taliban’s control over the area. The Taliban bombed schools and eventually closed them and publicly flogged people for violating their extremist rules. Women could not be in public unless accompanied by a male relative – even if the relative was five years old. Policemen were beheaded. Malala’s family fled the area for several months until they heard that the army had driven the Taliban out. They returned but discovered that the Taliban influence was still behind the scenes.
Malala would travel with her father and sometimes even speak at education rallies. in 2008 she was asked to write an anonymous blog for the BBC on life of a schoolgirl under the Taliban. A New York Times Documentary was made of the family when Malala was 11, covering the time just before their school was closed through their times as Internally Displaced Persons until they finally were able to come back. She was nominated for and won many prizes, including the National Youth Peace Prize.
Her father received death threats but refused a bodyguard. One reason was that one of their leaders was shot by his own bodyguard; another was that suicide bombers would blow themselves up right next to their target as well as bodyguards, and if he was going to die, he didn’t want anyone else to die because of him. Though the family used precautions, Malala was shot while on a school bus, and two of her classmates were shot as well.
The rest of the story details what happened for both Malala and her family after the shooting. The bullet had missed her brain, but bone fragments injured the membrane. A facial nerve was severed and the bullet eventually lodged in her back. Part of her skull had to be removed because of her brain swelling. It was eventually decided to move her to Birmingham, England, for more treatment and extensive rehabilitation. Her parents followed as soon as arrangements could be made. Healing required time, rehab, and a few more surgeries, one on the facial nerve and one to cover her skull.
The family had no idea they would not be returning to their valley. Though they appreciated the provision and safety in their new home, they understandably missed their friends and home. Ludicrous rumors surfaced, some of them that Malala worked for the CIA, or that her shooting was “staged” so the family could leave Pakistan and live in “luxury.”
At the time the book was published, Malala was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2014 she was its co-recipient. She has continued to speak out for education and has established the Malala Fund for that purpose.
This was a fascinating book. I admit I’m not as well versed as I should be in international news, so I learned a lot from the deftly-told history of the region. It was eye-opening to read of a different culture and to see what politics looks like from others’ viewpoints. Though we are from different cultures and religions, and would have different views on some aspects of politics, I highly respect Malala and her father and hope that their campaign for girls’ education and tolerance of different viewpoints is successful. I hope they get to return to their beloved Swat Valley some time. At different points in the book Malala wanted to be a doctor, an inventor, or a politician. I think she is well on her way to becoming a politician, and I think she’ll make an excellent one.
Genre: Nonfiction biography
Potential objectionable elements: Some areas of disagreement.
My rating: 9 out of 10
(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)