Book Review: I am Malala (Hardcover 301 pages)

Posted: June 23, 2014 in Books

I-Am-Malala

Malala Yousafzai is a sixteen year old girl who grew up in the Swat Valley in Pakistan.  Her father, Ziauddin, grew up with a speech impediment, but was determined to beat it and become a good speaker.  Her mother, Tor Pekai, was the more traditional type of Muslim woman, preferring to cook and clean and defer to her husband on decisions concerning the family.  Ziauddin had a single-minded focus on education throughout his life, and was also convinced that the school should be open to both girls and boys.  Malala was a standout in school, and was proud of the fact that she got top grades.  Malala was also taught by a female teacher, named Madam Maryam, for many of her formative years.

The conservative form of Islam favored by the Taliban first came to the Swat Valley in 2005, in the form of what Malala called the Radio Mullah, a man named Maulana Fazlullah, who started broadcasting pro-Taliban messages on the radio.  The early members of the Taliban on Pakistan didn’t look like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they wore jogging shoes and combat fatigues, but soon Fazlullah’s message of anti-dancing, anti-music anti movies was taking root in the conservative Swat Valley.  The Taliban soon started to take over the Swat Valley, the Taliban went further than burning books and dvd’s , they started bombing schools, mostly girls schools, and anywhere from 400 to 500 schools were shut down as a result, and it seemed like only Ziauddin and Malala were speaking out in favor of girls’ education, and against the autocratic behavior of the Taliban.

As the Taliban’s campaign of terror against their own people grew bolder, the Pakistani government sent the Pakistani military into the Swat Valley in 2009.  This did little to stop the Taliban from intimidating its own people.  As the Taliban becomes more repressive,  Malala becomes more famous as an outspoken spokesperson for women’s education. In 2009 Malala started writing a blog in Pakistan, critical of the Taaliban.  In 2011, Malala won the Pakistani National Youth Prize, and an International Youth Peace Prize.  As her fame grew, rumors ran rampant that both Malala and her father had become targets of the Taliban.  Despite the presence of the Pakistani military, in Swat Valley, Malala’s fear became palpable.

In October 2012, Malala’s worst fears were realized, she was shot in the face while riding a bus on the way home from school.  A coma was induced, but Malala had to be flown to Birmingham England where reconstructive surgery was done, and she miraculously survived.  She currently lives in Birmingham with her family.

No one should be denied an education by virtue of their gender, that message is communicated loudly and clearly in the book. But I am Malala contains a number of interesting perspectives.  The Pakistani government is portrayed as either incompetent or corrupt, either way they seem unable or unwilling to protect their own citizens from a repressive force taking hold in Pakistan, the Taliban.

The American government doesn’t come off any better in the book, primarily for the drone attacks in Pakistan.  It’s unfair to blame the US for the drone attacks, in my opinion, because if the incompetent/corrupt government of Pakistan had done the primary job of any government, protecting its own people, the American government wouldn’t have to launch drone attacks anywhere in the world.  The US shouldn’t be blamed for collateral damage either.  The US tries to avoid collateral damage the best they can, whereas the Taliban or Al-Qaeda tries to cause as much collateral damage as possible.  The US gets no credit for sending aid to Pakistan after the earthquake or the floods, it is just an extension of the ‘Great Satan’ perception that many Muslims abroad carry in their hearts about America.  But still in all, it’s interesting to see that the negative perception of America persists in Pakistan.

The Taliban comes off as the villainous band of extremists that they are, but that’s only because it’s written from the point of view of a girl who was shot by the Taliban.  I truly wonder how many people in the Swat Valley think the Taliban are villains.  Sad to say, but I bet most of the people in the Swat valley agree with the Taliban’s goals, if not their methods. Ban books, ban movies, stop women’s education, honor killing.  And if they don’t, they should speak out angst the things that the Taliban do.  Muslims of good will in Afghanistan and Pakistan should stand up and stop the Taliban, but that decision is theirs to make.

I also found interesting that the raid and the killing of Osama Bin Laden is hardly mentioned in the book, a couple of paragraphs in a book of 300 pages.  Is it shame because Bin Laden was in Pakistan for 8-10 years?  Or shame because Pakistan took millions from the US to find Bin Laden and probably knew where he was all along?  Or shame that the Pakistani intelligence service created Al-Qaeda, and sheltered or still shelter many Al-Qaeda militants? Or is it that many Pakistanis still sympathize with Al-qaeda?  Again it’s up to Muslims of good will in Pakistan to decide which direction they want Islam to go.

It is important to read this book, because Islamic extremism is spreading, now into Africa.  Boko Haram who kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria but who are located all over Africa, is the latest example of a group of Islamic fundamentalists denying women education and using violence to intimidate people into silence.  So anyone who thinks Malala’s story is not timely is misinformed.

Before any of us who happen to be Christian get a broken arm from patting ourselves on the back or pointing fingers at other religions, many fundamentalist Christians espouse many of the same ideas as the Taliban, without resorting to violence.  They start out saying that they want to protect women, just like the fundamentalist Muslims.  Don’t listen to music, don’t dance, only watch certain movies, stay home, have children, that’s what women are meant for.  It’s not protecting women that fundamentalists of any stripe want, it’s controlling women, and that is a dangerous impulse.  All people of faith must guard against extremists who misinterpret the holy texts that they purport to represent.  That is perhaps the overriding lesson in I am Malala, and we would be wise to pay heed.

There are times when the phrases used are decidedly western, and probably written by co-writer Christina Lamb, and there are times when this book sounds like a 16 year old girl writing in her diary, but those are minor flaws in a largely informative, and harrowing account of life under the Taliban.

I Am Malala: Girl Power personified.

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