Book Review: I Am Malala: the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Talban (2013)

I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai, is a hero's autobiography. Malala is a longtime Pakistani advocate for education, especially girls’ education. Fearful of her efforts and her growing influence worldwide, the Taliban shot her in the head when she was on her way to school. She was 15.

Now 19, Malala continues to work for her heart’s desire: education for every child. In her book, which is mostly chronological, she touches on many broad themes, including:

Home and Identity 

Named after Malalai, “the Joan of Arc” of Pakistan, Malala is put on the path to awesomehood by her father, a determined educator who built schools and was very active in local peace organizations. At every point in his daughter’s life, Ziauddin encouraged her to succeed in her studies, and to take real action to effect change to be of service to the less fortunate. He led her by his example, with every expectation that she would live up to her name. He was so known as a champion for education and progressive values that his family became more and more afraid that the Taliban would target him. Nope, they went for his little girl instead.

Malala loves the valley of Swat, frequently mentioning it and describing it as a paradise on earth. She speaks lovingly of her house’s fruit tree, of the flat roof where adults had tea and the kids played cricket, of the bazaar where her mother bought food and supplies. She also talks about the waters made filthy by human waste, and a mountain of trash that the community’s poorest children pick through for useable scraps. Good and bad, she loves her home – but hasn’t been back since she was airlifted to the UK after the attack.

Malala also explains the many identities assumed by her people: Pashtuns first, Pakistanis or Muslims second, and so on. By laying out these internal complications and conflicting loyalties, she points to possible reasons for the complicity of her fellow Pakistanis in the rise of the Taliban throughout the region.

But there are lighthearted moments, too – like when she describes her fights with her brothers, fantasizing about being a vampire like in Twilight, and chatting with her friend about skin whitening cream (!). She’s a teenager! But, y’know, a Nobel Peace laureate and world-famous activist.

The Rise of Terrorism

Malala illustrates the poverty and ignorance that allows terrorist groups like the Taliban to seed, and the government corruption/weakness and global tensions (particularly anti-US sentiment) that help them flourish. She observes that theirs is a society that shows little respect to the lowest classes, like orphans or manual laborers, and so it these young men who are taken in by radical madrasas and taught a distorted version of Islam.

More specifically, I Am Malala shows how the Taliban grew in her region: one man started a radio broadcast that initially appealed to many in Swat. He called for greater adherence to Islamic teachings, praised individuals by name when they did something “good” (e.g. stopped their daughters from going to school), and collected money from supporters. Then, bit by bit, he escalated his rhetoric and gained enough followers – Talibs – that public beatings and harassment became a practice. They proved to be resilient foes: even the army’s intervention did not completely erase them from the region, as evidenced by the attack on Malala.

Faith 

Malala is strongly religious. Every mention of the prophet Muhammad comes with the acronym PBUH – “peace be upon him.” She has tremendous faith in a gentle, kind god, one who listens to the prayers of children and protects the innocent. She cites the lessons of the Koran as emphasizing education and compassion. Implicitly throughout the book, she is presenting herself, her family, and all others who fight for peace as true Muslims, and the Taliban and their supporters as at best misguided and at worst monsters who are intentionally misusing their shared religion.

They destroy and build nothing new, Malala writes, listing the numerous ancient sites and statues the Taliban detonated in Swat when they were at the height of their power. The Taliban also forbade girls from going to school, the sale or consumption of Western music or movies, and cracked down on petty infractions, like a man’s pants length. Clearly, these are the actions of men without faith. And one reason for that is that many of them are orphans, and were raised in the lessons of jihad. Another reason is the antipathy toward change and Western dominance, which is shared by wealthy Middle East countries, which incidentally also fund radical madrasas. Resentment, anger, and fear are the festering core of the terrorist movement – not faith.

There are more things to praise in I Am Malala, including her absorbing retelling of the events immediately after her shooting – events that were relayed to her afterwards, because she only regained consciousness weeks later. The structure of the book is compelling, beginning with a snapshot of the shooting, and ending with Malala’s musing that she would have answered the gunman’s question – “Who is Malala?” – by identifying herself as Malala, and then telling him that all she wants is education for him, for his children, for all children. And to this day, this is her wish, and because she’s badass, she’s still fighting for it.

TL;DR: An inspiring young woman’s tale of love, education, geopolitics, history, and the bullet that ended her fears instead of her life.

Bonus: Malala’s UN speech at age 16 and her Nobel prize acceptance speech.

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