I am Malala: The Girl who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai (with Christina Lamb)

Eight stars

My journey of biographies has taken me inside the lives of political figures, television personalities, and even those involved in cults and religious sects. This next book shifts focus while retaining the perspective of a girl (and young woman) at the narrative helm. In this piece, young Malala Yousafzai chimes in and offers some of her own opinions growing up and becoming an international advocate for universal primary education for all children. Malala lays a foundation for the reader with a brief background on her native Pakistan and how it came to fruition some seventy years ago. Predominantly Muslim, Pakistan found itself trying to protect its population from religious and cultural incursions from its neighbouring states while developing a powerful military in the region. The reader is also offered a decent backstory about the Yousafzai family in the Swat Valley, where a dedicated father sought to develop a school for area children. His impetus was to hone these skills at an early age before releasing them with a thirst for knowledge and the wherewithal to become Pakistan’s future. The narrative explores this dream and fosters the growth from a dilapidated building into a successful initiative with over one thousand pupils attending annually. With the rise of the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan and the eventual American invasion of that country, the region’s stability weakened and Pakistan found itself pulled in two directions. Malala recounts that while the Pakistani Government tried to pave the way for America and its forces, there was a strong and historical allegiance to Taliban forces, something the reader will have to discover within the pages of this book. When the Taliban pushed into Pakistan, they brought their literal interpretations of Koranic verses and tried to invalidate those who blasphemed, from women who were not veiled through to education for any girl. Malala discusses her horror at seeing this and how her father was bullied as principal of his own school. After a period of flight for their own safety, the Yousafzai family returned, only to discover that the Swat Valley had become a battleground between Taliban forces and the Pakistani military. Encouraged by her father to advocate for girls like herself, Malala continued to speak in favour of education for all and would not stand down. Momentum grew and she soon found herself speaking to large groups with Taliban leaders hiding in the shadows, but surely no one would try to harm a child. What began as blanket rule enforcement within the Swat Valley soon turned to the ‘Talibanisation’ of those who spoke out most vociferously against this minute interpretation of Islamic principles. In October 2012, Malala faced the ultimate retribution for speaking out against the Taliban when she was shot. The medical fallout found her sent to the United Kingdom, where Malala uses the latter few chapters to discuss her injuries and the slow recovery she made. Even in the face of this violence, Malala and her spirit never faded as she kept advocating for universal education, no matter one’s socio-economic, religious, geographic, or physical background. She seeks to promote the idea that one girl’s voice can make a difference, as long as there are many who are willing to listen. An interesting biographical piece that pushes the reader into many interesting directions and is sure to stir up much controversy amongst other reviewers.

I found myself reading this book because of another great recommendation by a dear friend, not to jump on the burgeoning bandwagon or to sensationalise the life of this young woman. I wanted a great book that would educate me on issues with which I have little knowledge and found myself intrigued more than anything at what I discovered. This book explores the plight of a young girl trying to demonstrate the political and ideological struggles faced by a population powerless to push back against violent enforcement of contradictory rules. The oppression of a people who seek the freedom to obtain basic education is non-sensical. Doing so in the name of a loving God only strengthens the need for this freedom. The rationale to suppress is lost on me, though I am open to having someone explain it to me. 

There have been some who have commented that Malala does not speak for Pakistan or segments of the population. The fame she may garner from her efforts or this book do not interest me, nor should they lessen the message that she wishes to promote. This is Malala’s story told through her own memories. I am baffled by those who feel they can call her own view wrong or that her personal beliefs are a hoax better kept in a journal than placed out for public discussion. Furthermore, to posit that Malala is a complete laughingstock in her own Pakistan seems highly generalised, but that is through my filter of free speech and expression, values that are fundamental in Canada, as I write these words. To vilify Malala for her own personal views undoubtably commences a slippery slope towards the antics undertaken by the Taliban. Far be it from me to deny these individuals their own right to disagree, though without a foundation for their arguments, I cannot admit to being swayed in the least.

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to look at the book itself and how it was presented to the reader. The biography flows well and offers a a strong message on numerous occasions. The reader receives a healthy dose of history (both of Pakistan and Malala) to help formulate an educated opinion without the sense of overload. Chapters move fluidly and Malala seeks to keep things light where she can. Vignettes and lessons about her life offer the narrative additional colour and shape, which provides some entertainment to offset some of the darker moments during the fight for freedom in the face of religious oppression. It is, however, hard to miss that Malala thrives on self-aggrandisement throughout the book, where she brags of scholastic achievements or must tell the reader who she spoke before so many and liaised with Ambassador X and World Leader Y. The reader must realise that this is a child and so the starry-eyed nature of that ego boost is to be expected, even if she plays the peacock well as she struts throughout her story. Overall, it was an educational read and I can see why it received such hype. Let us see if it will spark ongoing momentum to ensure all children have access and utilise educational facilities the world over. They are our future, right Neo?

Kudos, Madam Yousafzai for helping me see the importance of your message. May you always have the courage to face your detractors and never let them derail your goals.