Malala Yousafzai is the 16-year old Pashtun from the Swat valley of Pakistan, shot through the head by the Taliban in October of 2012, because she spoke out publicly for the right of girls to receive education. Since then, there has been a lot, an awful lot, of sides taken on the story and on Malala herself.
This review is not the place for such discussion – indeed there will be many who hold strong views on her that have never read the book at all. I choose to go directly to her own story and listen to her own words.
This is a well-written and very thought-provoking book. Ostensibly Malala’s autobiography up to this point, it is written with the assistance of journalist Christina Lamb – however, having also read her blog from 2009, and listened to her powerful and confident speech to the UN, I was confident that the tone and voice of the book, and all the opinions expressed, are those of Malala and her father. Only in a few places, where figures and statistics intrude a little too much in to the narrative, can you detect the hand of Christina a little too enthusiastically embellishing Malala’s more straightforward and idealistic prose.
The narrative is roughly chronological, taking you from the start of Malala’s childhood in 1997, and her early experiences of the Swat valley, a land which she loves and has still great affection for. A normal schoolgirl clearly influenced by her father’s own strength of character and opinion, she plays (and fights) with her brothers, has fun (and regularly falls out) with her rivals in class, and develops a love of the Twilight novels and Ugly Betty on DVD. And, of course, she reads everything she can get hold of.
Matter-of-fact chapters take the reader through the rise of the Taliban influence in the valley, the gradual erosion of freedoms and tolerance, the suppression of music, art and much of the Pashtun’s own culture, and how moderate, traditional Muslim voices such as those of her father and his friends and colleagues were gradually suppressed, first through propaganda, then through fear, violence and death threats. In all of this the emphasis is on the impact on Malala’s own family, her mother, father and brothers, and how their own lives become a mere struggle for existence in the middle of it.
The theme of suppression of the Pashtun culture is important to understand and Malala repeatedly emphasizes it in the book. As the book progresses the reader’s sense of outrage grows steadily with each new example of casual corruption, each new grab of power through violence, each new failing of the Pakistani government, the Army, and yes, also us in ‘the West’, to prevent what was happening to their lives. In the middle of all this, even when her family are displaced by the government from their home and sent over the mountains, she goes to school and continues to speak at gatherings for her right to do so. One of the most striking and incongruous bits of the book is her description of reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time while bombs and bullets fly past outside.
We know how the story ends of course – the shooting is on page 203 – and by this point in the book, if you’re not on her side I cannot help you further. In trying to silence her, the Taliban made her voice stronger than it could ever have been before. In reading this book I learned a lot about Malala and her life, I also learned much about the reality of the last 30 years of Pakistan’s history – a subject I am now determined to read deeper into.
But mostly, I became a convert to her cause of education being a right for all children.
Anybody sneering “What’s so new and clever about calling for education? Anybody can do that!” – and I have read such sneers – does not understand the simple fact that they are not Malala’s target audience. They should instead read her book.
As Malala states in the book, “we Pakistanis like our conspiracies” and in her home country, she is a divisive figure. Even the myriad conspiracy theories are self-contradictory. She’s a Western stooge, who works for the CIA. She deserved to be shot. Her own family faked her shooting to get a Visa. She was shot by the US as a pretext for more drone attacks. She wasn’t shot at all. Without knowing it, in every ignorant Youtube comment, such people reaffirm Malala’s plea for education, for the ability to think freely and critically to become universal, to rise out of dogma to a new rationalism and simultaneously to the older, more tolerant version of her own religion that states that education is not only the right but the duty of all Muslims.
The road ahead is a steep and dark one. The Taliban men who shot her, although their names are known, have never been arrested. Members of the Taliban have vowed that if Malala ever returns to her childhood home, they will kill her. While Malala addresses the UN, in private girl’s schools throughout Pakistan – those left that have not yet been bombed closed – her words will not be read by children her own age because this book is banned, supposedly because it is insufficiently reverential of Islam. The government of Pakistan once again, in February 2014, are talking compromises with the Taliban.
If there is a factual book you read this year, I’d urge it to be this one, and read it without prejudice, taking her words as they are on the page and decide for yourself. In gaining the education to write them, Malala Yousafzai almost paid the ultimate price.
www.orionbooks.co.uk Hardback 275pp