Friday Reads – I am Malala

Malala Youfsanzai, for those who don’t know, was a schoolgirl in the SWAT region of Pakistani who went to school. For doing so and being a girl, the Taliban climbed onto her school bus one day and shot her in the head.

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Miraculously, Malala survived. She underwent several operations in a Pakistani hospital and then, as her condition was deteriorating fast as a result of shoddy after-care, she was flown to Birmingham in the UK. She underwent a full recovery and continued her education without fear of violence, living in the UK with her family.

If surviving being shot in the head wasn’t enough, Malala went on to be featured as one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, speak in front of the UN, win the Nobel Peace Prize aged 17 and, on her 18th birthday, she opened a foundation to campaign for the right of girls throughout the world to have an education.

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Obviously, the importance of educating girls goes without saying (I’m going to say it anyway). It is the number one way of raising people up out of poverty. Educating girls means doubling the potential labour force of a country – more money made within a family, higher productivity of the country. When women work, they tend to have less babies, meaning fewer mouths to feed, fewer large families, less poverty. Child marriage decreases, infant mortality decreases, the rate of HIV/AIDs falls. Nobody should be prevented from getting an education, least of all because of something as meaningless as their gender.

Anyway – rant aside. This is a book review. I have to admit I came to the book with a little prejudice. Malala was just 16 when she wrote it – should a girl that young really be writing an autobiography? I had a huge amount of respect for her, obviously, but she was just a child and I didn’t know much about her and so I wasn’t sure how well written or interesting her book would be, other than about this one horrific thing that had happened to her.

I was wrong. Entirely, 100% wrong. The whole book is fantastic. There are, obviously, moments when you do realise she is just a teenager. When her language overflows she is just so cute:

For us girls that doorway [into the school] was like a magical entrance to our own special world. As we skipped through, we cast off our headscarves like winds puffing away clouds to make way for the sun then ran helter-skelter up the steps.

But it’s not all flow-y, elaborate language that brings a smile to your face. Indeed, at points it is amusingly blunt, such as when Malala and her family were forced to leave their home due to fighting in attempts to get rid of the Taliban. Refugee camps spring up but:

“We weren’t going to stay in the camps because it was the worst idea ever.”

Well yup. Well put Malala!

Her descriptions of Swat valley almost make you want to visit it and she lovingly describes her family so well you feel as if you know them.

I am Malala was “co-written” by journalist Christina Lamb, whose voice comes through in the slightly drier historical sections, alerting the reader to facts and figures. It’s a good partnership – Malala bringing the emotion and Christina filling in the background. Pakistan has an incredibly complex history but through Malala and Christina it is given simple clarity for a reader largely ignorant of the intricate details. Pakistan is a country of hundreds of different languages, different cultures, identities, religions. Malala is specifically from the Swat region which only joined Pakistan around 20 years after Partition, leading to a range of ethnic tensions and political imbalances in the country.

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The book begins with older Pakistani history and then moves towards more modern history with 9/11 and then the American war in the region. She talks about the first jihadis from the Swat valley – Pakistanis given guns by the Americans to cross into Afghanistan and fight against the Russians. Then she talks about the growing presence of the Taliban.

First just one preacher, saying things lots of religious people would agree with, praising people by name on the radio for being good Muslims, becoming increasingly popular. Then gradually, gradually, once people had been sucked in, bit by bit, getting more and more extreme. It’s fascinating. The full force of her ire is aimed at the Taliban but Malala does not go easy on American drone strikes, the long-term effect of past funding of different jihadi movements, the violence and authoritarianism of the Pakistan army.

I won’t go into any more detail as Malala tells the story a lot better than I could by trying to paraphrase her. But the book continues to tell modern-day Pakistani history, the fight between the Pakistani Army and the Taliban, U.S. frustrations with the Pakistani Army, the killing of Bin Laden and the reaction to it by those around her.

Throughout this, Malala was constantly putting forward her voice in support of girls’ education, writing an anonymous blog, speaking on the radio, receiving awards, receiving death threats. All this, along with school trips, striving to be top of the class, teenage arguments with her best friend, growing up.

Moniba and I had been reading the Twilight books … It seemed that the Taliban arrived in the night just like vampires.

And then, of course, one day in the middle of the exam period, Malala gets shot. Then it turns firstly into a medical drama, and then a political drama as her case becomes more and more publicised. Finally, in the ending everyone knows, she is flown to the UK to recover. She doesn’t stop fighting, now that she is in a safe county, where she has a clear right to education amongst many other things. She uses that safety, and the notoriety her shooting brought her, to stand up and fight even more fiercely, for the right of every girl to receive education. She wins a Nobel prize. She writes a book. She is pretty absolutely incredible.

As you can probably tell, I would really recommend this book.

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