“‘Who is Malala?’ he demanded. No one said anything, but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered. That’s when he lifted up a black pistol.”
On 9 October 2012 Malala Yousafzai was riding the school bus home after what had been a good day. It was exam season at the Khushal School in Mingora (Swat Valley, Pakistan) and she had just completed her Pakistan Studies paper which had gone better than expected. Malala felt relieved and was in good spirits as she got the bus home. Despite the elation of that day Malala’s thoughts had already turned to all the revision she needed to do for the next exam. However, moments later her school bus was stopped by two young men belonging to the Taliban. “Who is Malala?” one demanded. He then proceeded to fire three bullets, one of which struck Malala in the left eye socket, leaving her fighting for her life. I Am Malala is her reply to this question which she never got the chance to answer.
In part one of the book Malala introduces the reader to a time before the Taliban and describes her childhood growing up in the Swat Valley, ‘the most beautiful place in all the world’. She fondly remembers the fruit trees surrounding the valley upon which grow ‘the most delicious fruit’, as well as the flat roof of her house where she played cricket. We are also introduced to the Pashtun culture which is based upon a code called Pashtunwali, a key principle of which is hospitality. Such hospitality meant that Malala’s home often resembled a boarding house rather than a family home but her resentment was soon replaced by guilt as she realised how lucky her family were. However, whilst abiding by this principle of hospitality, Malala and her family (especially her father) did not agree with the treatment of women in Pashtun culture under which girls are married off young or even given to another tribe to resolve a feud (swara). Malala’s father vowed to protect her freedom. It was this freedom which scared the Taliban.
As the book continues the beauty and tranquillity of the Swat Valley becomes overshadowed by the looming presence of the Taliban. At first they represented a dangerous yet somewhat distant threat. The atrocities being committed by the Taliban were taking place in Afghanistan, not Pakistan. However, slowly but surely these ‘strange- looking men with long straggly hair and beards’ made their presence felt in the heart of the Swat Valley. Firstly they set up an illegal radio station which broadcast every morning and night. Their leader, Maulana Fazlullah, would encourage listeners to stop committing ‘sinful’ acts such as listening to music or dancing. Eventually however these suggestions turned into demands as the Taliban became more aggressive. They began to kidnap and kill political activists and policeman and by the end of 2008 they forbade girls from going to school.
What is remarkable is that as the Taliban became ever more threatening and aggressive, Malala and her father’s campaigning for girls’ educational rights only became louder. They both spoke out against the Taliban in interviews with the media and under the pseudonym of Gul Makai, Malala even began to write a diary for the BBC Urdu website about the life of a schoolgirl under Taliban rule. ‘We were learning how to struggle. And we were learning how powerful we are when we speak.’ In spite of the obvious dangers, Malala and her father continued to stand up for what they believed in. However, at other times in the book we are reminded that Malala is just like any other ordinary teenager her age. She describes her love of Ugly Betty and Twilight. Sometimes it is easy to forget that Malala is only 16 years old.
At the end of the book Malala describes her second life in Birmingham in the UK. She describes her joy at being able to go to school without feeling scared and how even though she recently scored just 40% in a Physics exam it is still her favourite subject. However, she also expresses her loneliness and how she longs to be seen as just Malala and not ‘Malala, girls’ rights activist’. More importantly she expresses her wish to be known as ‘the girl who fought for education’ and not ‘the girl who was shot by the Taliban’. To describe her as the latter would be to give too much credit to her attackers.
‘I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban’, Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb (W&N, 2013)