Famous for advocating for education for all—male and female, all around the world—and for surviving a roadside assassination attempt by the Taliban, who were unimpressed with her efforts, Malala Yousafzai is a force to be reckoned with. I mean force to be reckoned with the most complimentary way.
Intelligent, articulate, ambitious, and yet still the girl next door who fights with her siblings and who is anything but a morning person, the Nobel Peace Prize co-winner (she shares the 2014 spoils with Kailash Satyarthi), is at once recognisably ordinary and elusively ethereal.
By that I mean she’s like every girl you’ve ever met and like no girl, and her ability to punch through inequality and prejudice without fear is admirable. I can’t help but think Malala and someone like Emma Watson, who recently delivered a knock-out speech to the United Nations assembly inviting men to help address inequality, have something extra the rest of us don’t. When Malala and Watson speak, the world truly listens.
It really needs to be noted that while Malala is incredible, such incredibleness doesn’t spring, fully formed, from nowhere. What’s clear from reading the book is that she has some pretty incredible parents. Though poorly educated herself, her mother is the family’s sage bedrock—and in recent times she’s even begun to learn to read and write and to learn English. Through hard graft and against the grain, her father started and ran a school to enable education for all. In some ways Malala has learnt from the debilitating effects a lack of education has meant for her mother and has picked up her father’s message and is running with it.
Malala’s father is famous for saying that Malala used to be known as his daughter; now he’s known as her father—and he’s proud of it. He also told media the way he came to have such a talented, world-changing daughter was that he hadn’t clipped her wings. At one stage in the book he tells her not to worry: ‘I will protect your freedom,’ he says. ‘Carry on with your dreams.’
Such statements blow my mind for their humble simplicity and matter-of-factness. As many have stated (and I’m paraphrasing here), a girl with a book and a pen is much more dangerous than a man with a semi-automatic weapon. The fact that the Taliban called for—and attempted—schoolgirl Malala’s execution is testament to that.
I’m normally pretty cynical of memoirs written while someone’s still in the throes of pimply puberty. But Malala’s memoir is perhaps one exception to that rule. Her efforts have been so groundbreaking so young, and her story is so compelling and important to empower and inspire everyone to pursue education around the world, there’s plenty that warrants being written down.
The book opens with the day of the shooting. Malala has overslept through a combination of being a night owl and because she stayed up late studying. She rushes to school to sit an exam—one on which she finds out months later, during her rehabilitation, she achieved a perfect score.
On her way home, the school bus she’s travelling in with her friend is stopped by a gunman. He asks the passengers: ‘Who is Malala?’ While none apparently spoke her name, some eyes flitted to her to gauge her response and essentially gave her away. The book’s ‘I am Malala’ title is ostensibly a clear, proud, fearless response to that question.
Malala was shot point blank (and some other girls were injured too), but miraculously survived (as did the others). She was airlifted to receive state-of-the-art medical treatment in Birmingham in the UK, where she still resides today. It’s too dangerous for her to return to Pakistan, and her Nobel Peace Prize recipiency that we’re celebrating and marvelling at has probably compounded that danger—the news was reportedly met with some negativity by the Taliban in Pakistan.
But the book doesn’t focus solely on the shooting—Malala notes that she understands why people focus on it, but for her it’s a speed bump in her activism efforts and much less interesting than everything else going on. The book instead concentrates more on her early years in Pakistan, her school life, her friendships, her family life, and her present-day life in the UK, all the while providing insight into the wider cultural and political issues in which she—and her desire for education—got swept up.
Malala is what one family friend describes as pakha jenai (or ‘wise beyond her years’) and someone you’d nominate in your high school yearbook as the girl most likely to change the world. (Coincidentally, the morning of the shooting her father had been joking that when Malala was president, her brother, with whom she regularly has sibling-rivalry fights, could be her secretary.)
What’s striking about Malala is her nuanced understanding of the world, its injustices, and her pragmatic, straight-to-the-point logical solutions. She understands, and articulates, this stuff better than I do—and I’m roughly twice her age.
And, although she and her family have suffered immensely and unnecessarily through foolish, misguided efforts to prevent girls obtaining an education (seriously, why anyone would want to prevent anyone from being educated is inane and abhorrent), she’s ultimately having the last laugh (or whatever the appropriate term is here). Malala writes: ‘The Taliban shot me to silence me. Instead, the whole world [is] listening to my message now.’
The Australian I Am Malala edition cleverly comes with discussion questions at the end and downloadable teacher resources tailored to the Australian Curriculum, making it ideal as a set text. But, truly, it’s one for all ages and that shouldn’t need being part of the curriculum to inspire us to pick it up—this is a book we should be championing (along with education) for all.