Little, Brown and Company/New York, 2013
Jesus. Mohammed. Napoleon. Generations worldwide know them by their first names, alone.
Today that recognition belongs to rock stars and athletes—Cher, Madonna, Beyonce, Pele—and one amazing young woman who has not yet reached adulthood. Malala.
I Am Malala, as detailed in the subtitle, is the story of “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban.” The book is much more than an autobiography. It is an introduction to Malala herself, her family and her community. It is a glimpse into her Pashtun culture, and a religious and political history of the Swat Valley in Pakistan.
The Swat Valley, according to the author, is the “most beautiful place in all the world…a heavenly kingdom of mountains, gushing waterfalls and crystal-clear lakes.” In fact, Swat is often called the Switzerland of the East. In ancient times, Buddhist kings ruled the valley for more than 500 years, followed by a period of Hindu rule. Islam was introduced to the Swat Valley in the eleventh century. Today the population is predominantly Muslim.
A princely state until it was dissolved, Swat is populated almost entirely by ethnic Pashtun, tribes which, since 1023 A.D., include the Yousafzais, from which Malala takes her surname. The author notes that some people believe the Pashtuns descend from one of the lost tribes of Israel, and throughout the book, she instructs on the Pashtun culture and code of conduct.
Hospitality is an important part of their culture, but Pashtuns rarely say thank you, manana. A Pashtun will never forget a good deed and is bound to reciprocate at some point. In Pashtun culture, kindness can only be repaid with kindness. It can’t be repaid with expressions like “thank you.” The same applies to bad deeds, which a Pashtun will never forgive. According to a Pashtun saying, “The Pashtun took revenge after twenty years and another said it was taken too soon.” From beginning to end, the pages are peppered with the phrase, “Pashtuns are…” and “we Pashtuns….”
Although acknowledging pride in her culture, Malala takes issue with the treatment of women, citing some specific examples. She tells of one 10-year-old whose father sold her to an old man who already had a wife but wanted a younger one, and of a 15-year-old girl who was poisoned by her family for flirting with a boy. She writes about a custom called swara, where a girl is given from one tribe to another to settle a feud. The custom is still practiced despite being banned. Without seeking her family’s permission, a widow from Malala’s village married a widower from another clan with which her family was feuding, compounding the dispute. Village elders gathered and resolved the issue by requiring the widower’s family to marry their most beautiful girl to the least eligible man of the widow’s family.
Malala writes that the birth of a daughter is not a reason to celebrate for most Pashtuns, but she was born “at dawn as the last star blinked out,” a good omen for a superstitious people. Her father named her Malala for “Malalai of Maiwand, the greatest heroine of Afghanistan … who inspired the Afghan army to defeat the British in 1880 in one of the biggest battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.” Malalai is recognized as a Pashtun Joan of Arc. Malala’s mother could neither read nor write for most of her life. Malala’s father was a school owner and encouraged his daughter and other young girls to pursue education. In the face of cultural and political opposition, Malala accepted his challenge.
A superior student, Malala competed for and won numerous academic honors. While the Taliban tried to prevent women from attending school, Malala and her father spoke out in favor of education for girls. At the age of 12, Malala was fluent in Pashto, Urdu and English. Malala joined her father and participated in a New York Times documentary called Class Dismissed in Swat Valley.
Some two years later, Malala was one of five nominees for the international peace prize of KidsRights, an Amsterdam-based advocacy group. Her name was advanced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She was also awarded Pakistan’s first-ever National Peace Prize, re-named the Malala Prize in her honor. She dedicated prize money to the fight for education. The recognition concerned both her parents. Malala’s father considered it a bad omen, because Pakistanis generally do not honor the living in this way. Malala’s mother was concerned that the recognition endangered her daughter’s safety.
Malala garnered an international profile and attracted Taliban death threats. Even knowing she was a target, Malala continued speaking publicly for education and attending school herself. She reminded her father that he had always said that “heroism is in the Pashtun DNA.” On October 9, 2012, Malala says her world changed. A masked Taliban gunman shot Malala in the face at point-blank range. The result of that action was anything but what the terrorist intended. The Taliban made her campaign for education global.
One of the doctors who treated Malala after her injury referred to her patient as Pakistan’s Mother Teresa. Political leaders recognized Malala as the daughter of the nation. A United Nations envoy launched an “I Am Malala” campaign so that no child would be denied school by the year 2015. On her 16th birthday, Malala addressed the United Nations, advocating for the right of free education for every child, a right she maintains is guaranteed by Islam, as well.
She concludes her story: “I love my God. I thank my Allah. I talk to him all day. He is the greatest. By giving me this height to reach people, he has also given me great responsibilities. Peace in every home, every street, every village, every country—this is my dream. Education for every boy and every girl in the world. To sit down on a chair and read my books with all my friends at school is my right. To see each and every human being with a smile of happiness is my wish.
“I am Malala. My world has changed but I have not.”
This profile in courage is a must-read. ■