You’ve heard about her. The young Pakistani woman who was shot by the Taliban for speaking about the importance of women’s education.
I’d been itching to read her book since she was on The Daily Show. Her story is one of unimaginable courage and strength of character. It is a story of extreme fortitude in the face of prejudice and ignorance. It is a story of a family striving to leave their small corner of the world a better place before they depart. It is a story with lessons we should all learn.
Malala was born into a unique family in Pakistan. Her father was an activist, teacher, and philanthropist who believed that all children, especially girls, should be educated. Her mother was illiterate but wanted better for her daughter. She describes their homeland, the Swat Valley, as a beautiful paradise with streams, mountains, and lush vegetation. The villages in Swat were mostly feudal and destitute but Malala speaks of her childhood with general happiness. She loved her valley and she loved her country. It wasn’t until she could fully grasp the gravity of the extremist culture in Pakistan, at about age 10, that she elaborates on the daily terror Pakistanis faced just walking outside. In her young years, Malala witnessed more disaster, hunger, violence, and destruction than many will in a lifetime.
Her family had moved to a larger city called Mingora so her father could start a private school. In order to get the school off the ground, her family lived in a two room shack with no electricity or running water. They were in extreme debt for many years but Malala’s father was so dedicated to spreading his philosophy of education that he persevered despite his trials.
Malala had an insatiable thirst for knowledge from an early age; knowledge of language, knowledge of science, knowledge of history, and knowledge of Islam. She believed that everything was connected and that knowledge gave you the power to understand the world and come closer to your God. She simply would not accept that her God wanted her to live without being enlightened by this wondrous world around her. She read voraciously and prayed incessantly. She questioned the workings of the government, actions of religious leaders, and why it seemed so many in her country saw violence as the only solution to fixable problems.
Malala took great pride in being first in her class. She developed her public speaking skills to impress her father and grandfather and she eventually used those skills to speak out for education and against the Taliban. Although many praised her efforts and she won many awards, she became a target for terrorism.
One day after school, Malala and her classmates boarded the school van to take them home. She remembers looking around at the people working, walking, and sitting along the road. She remembers the younger children fussing in the front of the van. She remembers two men with bandanas on their faces approaching the van and asking, “Which one is Malala?”
Before she could answer, one of the men shot Malala in the head.
The bus driver rushed to the hospital where she would have several surgeries before being air lifted to a better hospital in Peshawar. Offers flooded in from international hospitals and individual physicians offering to perform the surgeries and therapies that Malala would need. Due to Pakistani bureaucracy, Malala was moved to Birmingham Hospital in the UK with a temporary guardian while her family remained in Pakistan. She underwent many more surgeries and eventually her family came to join her. Her first request when she could speak again was for her father to bring her book bag with him. She had exams coming up and needed to work on her physics and numericals. Incredible resilience.
Malala had no idea the impact she’d had on the world until her guardian brought her the first of many bags of letters and gifts from men, women, and children across the globe. She received well wishes from the likes of Angelina Jolie, Gordon Brown, and even Beyonce. Journalists were camped outside of the hospital for the better part of a year just trying to catch a glimpse of Malala, her father, or her high profile guests. Malala’s father was awarded a diplomatic position in the Pakistani government so he could stay in the UK without asylum. Once Malala was discharged from the hospital in January 2013 after 13 months, her family moved into an apartment in Birmingham and were so happy to be a family again. After a few more surgeries, she regained most of her physical capabilities. Once she was able to travel, she flew to New York City to address the United Nations. Her father cried tears of joy and Malala was happy once more.
As I read this book, I found myself completely in awe. In awe of so many things about Malala and her life. I was in awe of her unrelenting optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. I was in awe of her unwavering faith in the face of extremists wielding her God and her Qur’an as justification for violence and hate. I was in awe of her unyielding dedication to lifting her voice to help give every human the opportunity to better their lives through education.
I am unbelievably fortunate to have lived a life where I never had a reason to be afraid to speak up for my beliefs or strive to achieve whatever my heart and head desired. It is truly difficult for me to fully comprehend a life where one must live in fear of doing or saying or wearing something a male relative thought inappropriate. I do not have to live with my father because I am unmarried at almost 27. I can work to support myself and live the lifestyle that I choose. I can read, watch, and write whatever I choose. I have the freedom to be as diligent or as lazy as I choose.
But if I use my freedom to be lazy and take the advantages I was so generously given for granted, I am actively disrespecting those, like Malala, who have sacrificed almost everything just for a shot at that same freedom.
Malala is a testament to the power of a truthful voice. If one has the courage to raise it.
She says, “I am Malala.”
I say, she is magnificent.
I cannot recommend this book enough. It is appropriate for all ages albeit some semi-graphic descriptions of violence.
“Education is education. We should learn everything and then choose which path to follow. Education is neither Eastern or Western. It is human.”
“Our people have become misguided. They think they’re greatest concern is defending Islam and are being lead astray by those like the Taliban who deliberately misinterpret the Qur’an. We should focus on practical issues. We have so many people in our country who are illiterate. Not a single day passes without the killing of at least one Pakistani.”
“It seemed to me that everyone knows they will die one day. My feeling was, nobody can stop death. It doesn’t matter if it comes from a Talib or cancer. So I should do whatever I want to do.”
“It is my belief that God sends the solution first and then the problem.”
“I was a good girl. In my heart, I had only the desire to help people. It wasn’t about the awards or the money. I always prayed to God, I want to help people, and please help me to do that.”
“He said they would forgive me if I came back to Pakistan and wore a burka. Journalists urged me to answer him. But I thought, “who is this man to say that?” The Taliban are not our rulers. It’s my life. How I live it is my choice.”
To donate to The Malala Fund: www.malalafund.org
To watch her interview on The Daily Show: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-october-8-2013/exclusive—malala-yousafzai-extended-interview-pt–1