I Am Malala: A Book Review

In October, 2012, the Pakistani Taliban attempted to assassinate Malala Yousafzai, a teenager known throughout Pakistan for her outspoken advocacy of woman’s rights, especially a woman’s right to education. Standing up for women’s rights can be a risky business in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where violent Islamist extremists have a strong foothold. But these religious disputes were thought to be mainly an adult affair. Innocents suffered, to be sure, but only as a regrettable consequence of grownups’ attacks on each other. Few expected that even the Taliban would target a precocious schoolgirl – until Malala.

The attack triggered an international uproar. Malala was shot in the head while sitting in a school bus (two of her friends also were hit in the spray of gunfire). It was a survivable injury, but the critical care facilities she needed do not exist in Pakistan. After initial fumbles, Pakistani government officials scrambled to respond. Malala was whisked away to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England. She recovered and, with her family, began a new life in exile, still under Taliban death threat. The teenager from Pakistan’s remote Swat Valley of is an international celebrity. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the 2013 Andrei Sakharov Award. She has been made an honorary citizen of Canada. She has spoken at the United Nations and, recently, she met Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.

And now, with the help of a skilled ghostwriter, Ms. Yousafzai has written a book: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

It is a wonderful book that succeeds at multiple levels. It is a warm tale of a talented girl and her family, set against the complex and shifting events of Pakistani politics and the native Pashtun culture; it is a riveting and intense description of the creeping onset of Taliban occupation and the horrors it brought; finally, it is a very engaging account of one girl’s life in the wild, beautiful and contested Swat Valley region of Pakistan.

One wonders, in ghostwritten books, whether or not it is the true voice of the author. “I Am Malala” is written in the first person, and it seems clear to me, at least, which parts are “all Malala” and which parts bear the fingerprints of the ghostwriter. Malala’s voice comes through most clearly when she is talking about her personal life: family, friends, school – her thoughts, feelings and accomplishments center on this small world. She worries that she is too short and that that her complexion is not fair enough for her Pashtun culture that admires light skin. She takes pride in her luxurious hair. She is fiercely competitive at school and obsesses about the academic competition with friends and rivals. She wants to be number one in the class and usually succeeds. She wants to please her parents, especially her father.

The book is almost as much about Malala’s father, Ziauddin, a teacher, headmaster and local activist, as it is about Malala. He is the dominant influence in her life and has been criticized for encouraging his talented child to be outspoken in a very dangerous place. According to Malala, her Dad feels guilt and a sense of responsibility for what happened to her, but also proud of her courage and accomplishments. Ziauddin is a progressive, in Western terms. He is the leader of the local environmental movement; he is a champion of girls’ education; he is a woman’s rights advocate – his friends note that, in a culture in which women are often neither seen nor heard outside the home, he openly seeks the advice and counsel of his wife on matters that most deem to be the province of men. He embraces democracy with passion. He is a believing Muslim married to a very pious woman, and opposes the Taliban and its intolerant interpretation of Islam. His opinions are not just expressed in the safety of the family home. He is astonishingly – one could argue heedlessly – outspoken. He challenges the Taliban repeatedly at public events. He admits boys and girls to the school, equally. He is undeterred by threats. In one memorable scene from the book, the local Taliban mullah, accompanied by village leaders, pays an evening call on the Yousafzai home to demand that Ziauddin stop educating girls. Malala’s dad not only pushes back, he kicks them out of the house – this at a time when the local Taliban is busy killing its opponents for far lesser affronts.

Malala hears all this from the next room of their small house. Time and time again, she sees her father speak out and take risks in support of his ideals. Like most kids, she is influenced by the day-to-day conduct and example of her parents. She absorbs her father’s ideals and develops with her own impressive intelligence, courage, talent and determination. Plans by the Taliban to shut down the girls’ school are the catalyst that bring these qualities together in uncommon fashion. Her advocacy on behalf of girls’ education and women’s right is as clear and forthright as is her father’s. When Taliban threats finally shut down her school, she tells journalists: “They cannot stop me. I will get my education if it’s at home, school or somewhere else. This is our request to the world – to save our schools, save our Pakistan, save our Swat."

Malala has a mind of her own and her own voice as well. She tells us, with humor, that her father is too romantic and idealistic and it is her mother, a pious, illiterate Pashtun woman, who keeps the family grounded. It will be interesting to see how, as she grows up, Malala will integrate the strong and differing models presented by her parents.

The book has raises questions, of course. One example: Malala blogged for BBC under a pseudonym when she was just 11. She gave interviews to print, radio and TV journalists. Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize. The New York Times produced a documentary on her advocacy prior to the attempt on her life. It is this high media profile that brought Malala to the near-fatal attention of the Taliban. Her rise to celebrity in Pakistan, through her outspoken advocacy and her father’s agency, is a strong thread in the book, but she presents it almost with a shrug. Malala seems more excited about her exam scores than her public persona.

This may be modesty or perhaps a “modesty strategy”. While this remarkable young woman is feted globally, her image in Pakistan is mixed. Some Pakistanis call the attack a “CIA plot” to justify drone attacks, while others call her a role model. The Taliban has left open the possibility of another attack.

I’m inclined to believe, however, that the book’s focus on her personal life and its challenges is the true story of Malala. The Taliban came to Swat Valley when she was ten years old. Her celebrity outside Swat Valley began when she was just 11. But her day-to day-life was still filled with school, family and friends. Even the reality of Taliban rule, with its public floggings, revenge killings and intrigue, horrible as it was, remained in the domain of the adults; she was protected, she assumed, in the bosom of her family.

This book is a worthwhile read. It is suitable for specialists in the region and ordinary people seeking to improve their understanding of Pakistan, but will be especially engaging for anyone who is interested in the story of this remarkable young woman, whose life and contributions to the broader community are just beginning.

- Randy Garton