Let us pick up our books and our pens […] They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.
I was aware of Malala’s story years ago, of how she stood up for the education of women and girls in Pakistan and was shot for doing so, but that was all I knew about it. I was thrilled to be able to pick up a copy of this book and read her story in full. Covering events from her birth until the present in her new life in Birmingham, this book tells of her remarkable journey from Pakistan to England, and the trials she faced along the way, as well as discussing the lives of her parents and the history of her country. Malala’s passion for the Swat Valley is especially clear throughout the book, even as it goes through horrific upheavals, and her love for her country as much as her fight for equal education helps to give a better understanding of the situation there, for those like myself who really ought to know more. Hers is a story of fighting for girls education, but also of being uprooted by terrorism, her brave parents who prized her and her schooling, and her miraculous recovery from an attack she wasn’t expected to survive.
Many of our friends back in Pakistan probably think we are very lucky to live in England in a nice brick house and go to good schools. My father is education attache for the Pakistan consulate and an adviser for global education for the UN. It would be a dream life for many young, ambitious Pakistanis. But when you are exiled from your homeland, where your fathers and forefathers were born and where you have centuries of history, it’s very painful. You can no longer touch the soil or hear the sweet sound of the rivers. Fancy hotels and meetings in palaces cannot replace the sense of home.
Pakistan is a nation which has gone through an immense amount of upheaval, from military dictators to corrupt politicians to natural disasters, which some religious figures would blame on women’s freedom. These topics are covered in great detail, looking not just at the timeline but also at Malala’s country’s customs and traditions from a woman’s perspective. She states that ‘When I was born, people in our village commiserated with my mother and nobody congratulated my father. […] I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children.’ This gives Malala’s story a stark opening and she explores these issues rife in Pakistan with deftness and compassion. She admits to being very lucky in that her father was proud of her birth and always supported her as an advocate for education – he himself had set up a school in his youth, despite various problems with money, and it had flourished. Near the close of the book Malala explains ‘When he went to France to collect an award for me he told the audience, ‘In my part of the world most people are known by their sons. I am one of the few lucky fathers known by his daughter.’ I cannot claim to fully understand the complexity of this culture and the country’s treatment of women, but I know an excellent father when I see one.
A couple of weeks after Shabana’s murder, a teacher in Matta was killed when he refused to pull his shalwar above the ankle the way the Taliban wore theirs. He told them that nowhere in Islam is this required. They killed him and his father.
‘They are abusing our religion […] How will you accept Islam if I put a gun to your head and say Islam is the true religion? If they want every person in the world to be Muslim why don’t they show themselves to be good Muslims first?’
Although this book claims to be Malala’s story, it is as much the story of her country, the invasion of her valley by the Taliban, their many horrific acts of violence and their abuse of Islam. These descriptions help to give a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding the rise of such an organisation from the perspective of someone actually living under their regime, as opposed to someone observing it from the outside, and events are explained quite clearly. That being said, there were many times when I was reading when I wished the book would focus more on Malala’s story, as opposed to that of her country – oftentimes the mixture of politics, history and personal experience felt more of a jumble, and the overall narrative was not as cohesive as I first expected. Malala’s voice becomes more prominent later in the book,though the events surrounding her attack, recovery, work for the UN and so on are only covered in the final third of the book.
There seemed to be so many things about which people were fighting. If Christians, Hindus or Jews are really our enemies, as so many say, why are we Muslims fighting with each other? Our people have become misguided. They think their greatest concern is defending Islam and are being led astray by those like the Taliban who deliberately misinterpret the Quran. We should focus on practical issues. We have so many people in our country who are illiterate. And many women have no education at all. We live in a place where schools are blown up. We have no reliable electricity supply. Not a single day passes without the killing of at least one Pakistani.
Overall, as important as I feel Malala’s story is, the more I think about it as I write this review, the more I realise just how little of it I actually read in this book. Her story was often overshadowed and jumbled up with the co-author’s explanations of history, politics and terrorism which, while very informative, took away from the wisdom and strength of Malala’s own voice and her story. A more linear and cohesive narrative focussing on just her, without all of the infordumping, would not only read better but would also enable her courage to shine through more clearly. As it stands, as much as I enjoyed this book for the chance to hear more about Malala’s life, her advocacy and her remarkable journey, I wish I could have heard more from her than her co-author.
‘Are you scared now?’ I asked my father.
‘At night our fear is strong, Jani,’ he told me, ‘but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again.’