malala

I started reading I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb) because I was intrigued by, and interested in Malala: this fiercely well-spoken and outspoken girl who has become a world-famous and almost impossibly inspirational crusader for education. What I didn’t necessarily expect was a book that gives you such a deep and vivid insight into how extremism and terrorism work on the ground level, and how the corrosive force of violent fundamentalism is changing traditional Islamic societies. Not changing them back to something they were before, but rather violently imposing a new, foreign, and often unwelcome set of rules on the population that affects everything, from how you are allowed to dress and socialize, to whether girls should be allowed to go to school.

First and foremost, of course, this is Malala’s own story. It’s the story about how she grew up in a family with a father and mother who loved her and encouraged her to be the fiercely intelligent and outspoken person she is, even when it wasn’t easy or convenient or universally accepted by others. It’s the story about what her life and her world was like, before she was thrust into the international spotlight. It’s also very much the story of the place where she grew up: the Swat region of Pakistan, an area Malala obviously loved and still loves deeply.

All this is told in a straightforward, captivating manner and that is another strength of I Am Malala: that the book really captures her voice, making it feel as though you’re listening to her speak.

But the book goes deeper than just giving us the Malala’s own backstory. The modern history of Pakistan and the surrounding region is woven into the telling of her life, giving me a new perspective on events like 9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and the current US administration’s use of drone strikes. So often we see these events from the outside, from the western perspective, but this book really allows you to see how these things re-shaped and destabilized countries and governments in the region where Malala grew up.

The book also gave me more insight into, and a deeper understanding of how fundamentalism and extremism work at the street level, in the rural towns and villages most affected. It’s heartbreaking and eye-opening to read Malala’s account of how quickly the Taliban managed to attract support in Swat by appealing to what they knew people craved (more security and justice, less corruption, etc.), and by later demonstrating the kind of violence and repression they would use to punish those who did not comply with the new ideology.

What comes through vividly in every single page of the book is Malala’s indomitable spirit: she certainly does not come across as a saint, or naive crusader. Instead, the book allows you to see her as a multi-faceted young girl: intelligent and strong-willed, funny and sensitive, precocious and brave beyond belief, hard working and insecure, spirited and proud of her own achievements, and deeply attached to her family and her childhood friends.

The final chapters of the book describe what happened after she was shot in the head by the Taliban, shot by a man, while she was doing nothing more than riding the school bus home. Malala doesn’t dwell on the attack itself or the pain it caused her (both physical and emotional), but she does describe the damage the bullet did to her body (her parents’ sadness over the initial “loss of her smile” is heartbreaking). She also touches on her new life in Britain, her sadness over not being able to go back home to Swat, but also her realization that more people are now listening to what she has to say:

Today I looked at myself in the mirror and thought for a second. Once I had asked God for one or two extra inches in height, but instead he made me as tall as the sky, so high that I could not measure myself. — I am Malala. My world has changed but I have not.

I Am Malala is not a book about a flawless heroine. It is a book about a real human being with exceptional gifts and an exceptional drive to speak her mind, even when she knew people might try to kill her for doing so. It is a must-read.

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