I am Malala
The author and central figure of I Am Malala, Malala Yousafzai is a strong, intelligent, and intensely passionate crusader for women’s rights and the right to free education. During the course of the book, she appears on television and the radio, before the United Nations, and in the capitol buildings of dozens of countries, always lobbying for the same issues. She is also extraordinarily young for someone so politically active—as of 2015, she is only 18 years old, and for many of the crucial events in I Am Malala, she’s barely a teenager. There are many points in the book when it’s easy to forget Malala’s age, as she always seems mature beyond her years. Malala’s courage and passion make her seem almost superhuman, especially in light of the global fame she’s achieved in recent years. In part, Malala intends for her book to correct this perception, as she shows us how she developed her passion for justice. Malala is modest, always reminding us that she rose to fame thanks to the help and encouragement of other people, especially her father, Ziauddin. Ultimately, I Am Malala shows Malala to be both a product of her environment (her exposure to writing and communication from an early age, her father’s influence, etc.) and an innately brave and intelligent young woman.
Malala’s father and role model, Ziauddin is an educated, articulate, and charismatic man who passes on to his daughter a passion for freedom, education, and equality. As a child, Ziauddin is afflicted with a nervous stutter, and he also struggles to assert his own personality in the face of Rohul, his articulate, charismatic father. Ultimately, through hard work and perseverance, Ziauddin becomes a talented public speaker. As an adult, he uses his rhetorical abilities to organize schools for young women—a measure that makes him a traitor to Islam in the eyes of the Taliban. Despite the Taliban’s threats, Ziauddin continues to run his school and encourages Malala to fight for education and women’s rights. Ziauddin is instrumental in connecting Malala with the journalists and broadcasters who first brought her to national prominence. While Ziauddin is intensely proud of his daughter’s eloquence and single-mindedness, his pride turns to guilt when Malala is attacked by a Taliban soldier. Ultimately, Ziauddin continues to use his talents to fight for equal rights and equal education and encourages Malala to do exactly the same.
Tor Pekai Yousafzai
Malala’s mother, Tor Pekai, is a loving parent, though she lacks the necessary education to inspire her daughter as Ziauddin, her husband, does. She is intensely religious, and always prays five times a day (as the Quran suggests). Tor Pekai often feels insecure about her lack of formal education, especially because Ziauddin is an educated, literate man. Nevertheless, she shares her husband’s passion for equality and encourages Malala to learn and speak out against the Taliban. In a sense, Tor Pekai represents a cautionary tale for Malala: while Malala loves her mother, she lobbies for women to enjoy the educational opportunities that her mother was never given.
Malala’s younger brother Khushal is a minor character in the book. He isn’t especially close with Malala and attends school in another town for much of the time when Malala is becoming involved in politics. In one of the only major interactions between Khushal and Malala showed in the book, Khushal expresses his desire to stay home from school, and Malala angrily rebuffs him—he should feel lucky to learn, she insists.
Malala’s classmate and “rival” for success in the classroom, Malka e-Noor is as intelligent, or almost as intelligent, as Malala—yet she doesn’t fight for education or women’s rights, as Malala does. Her presence in the book reminds us that intelligence, while important, isn’t enough: one needs bravery and integrity to enact real change in the world.
Ziauddin’s father, Rohul Amin is an intimidatingly charismatic and articulate man. Growing up, Ziauddin is always terrified by his father, as his own embarrassing stutter stands in stark contrast with Rohul Amin’s eloquence. Rohul begins to show more respect for Ziauddin when Ziauddin overcomes his stutter and wins a series of prestigious speaking contests. Yet he quarrels with his son once again when Ziauddin fails to show the academic aptitude necessary to become a doctor. Although Ziauddin eventually finds a way to continue his education without his father’s financial support, he has an uneasy relationship with Rohul Amin for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he allows Rohul to visit Malala. Rohul shows great affection for Malala, and his rhetorical prowess is a major influence on her own mental growth.
A college friend of Ziauddin, with whom Ziauddin founds the Khushal School. While Hidayatullah plays an important part in making the Khushal School a success, he eventually becomes fed up with the slow progress and falling profitability of the school and leaves Ziauddin to found a school of his own.
The first female prime minister of Pakistan, a rival of General Pervez Musharraf, and an important role model for Malala. Benazir Bhutto is a talented and charismatic politician who uses her influence to fight for women’s rights and claims that she will fight the forces of religious extremism in her country. While Benazir enacts meaningful political changes in her country, her career is cut short in 2007 when a Taliban assassin murders her.
General Pervez Musharraf
One of the key Pakistani leaders of Malala’s lifetime, General Pervez Musharraf is a brutal, untrustworthy, but undeniably talented politician. A military leader by training, he maintains control of the country for eleven years, always claiming that he plans to step down soon. Musharraf cleverly aligns himself with the United States by promising to use their foreign aid to fight the forces of terrorism and extremism in his country. For more than half a decade, Musharraf “hedges his bets,” promising both religious extremists and American politicians that he’s on their side. (In reality, Malala maintains, he’s on no one’s side but his own: most of America’s foreign aid goes to building elaborate mansions and villas for his pleasure.) Plainly, Malala dislikes Musharraf for raising his own interests above those of his state, and for denying his full support to advocates of free education and women’s rights. At one point, Malala loosely implies that he’s responsible for the death of Benazir Bhutto.
A young girl, the same age as Malala, who lives in Malala’s community. Safina unknowingly plays an important part in Malala’s moral development: when Malala suspects that Safina has stolen her toy telephone, Malala develops a bad habit of stealing. She’s later punished for her thefts and feels so guilty about them that she resolves to be a moral person for the rest of her life.
An American diplomat and supposed CIA agent who’s arrested in Pakistan after shooting two Muslims who he claimed were harassing him. Davis’s arrest causes relations between America and Pakistan to deteriorate in the early 2010s and later makes it more difficult for Malala to be taken out of the country for medical treatment.
No one said anything, but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered.
The book begins on October 9, 2012, as Malala Yousafzai, a teenaged girl, makes her way to school by bus. On her ride to school, Malala thinks about how her hometown of Mingora, Pakistan has changed in the last decade, and how the Taliban (a radical Islamist group) continue to pose a threat to advocates of education and women’s rights. Suddenly, the bus stops, and a man climbs onboard. He demands to know who Malala is. Malala says nothing, but her identity is obvious: she’s not wearing her burqa (female veil). The man raises a gun and shoots Malala in the head.
The book then “flashes back” to Malala’s birth. When she was born, few people in her community bothered to congratulate her parents, Ziauddin and Tor Pekai, because the birth of a girl is seen as a failure on the part of the parents. Malala explains more about her culture. She is a Pashtun, an ethnic group situated mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She lives in the Swat Valley, a beautiful part of Northwestern Pakistan. She is also a devout Muslim and has been all her life. From a very early age, she was conscious of the restrictions being placed on her because of her sex.
Malala’s father, Ziauddin, is a charismatic, educated man. He grew up studying poetry and literature and earned his family’s respect by winning several prestigious debating competitions. In the 1980s, when Pakistan fell under the control of the brutal dictator General Zia, Ziauddin founded a series of schools that offered educations to girls as well as boys. While many of these ventures failed—since many Muslims in Pakistan refused to believe in a woman’s right to an education—Ziauddin eventually found success. As an adult, he married Tor Pekai for love, rather than because of a family arrangement—this, Malala notes, is highly irregular in Pashtun culture. Ziauddin became a passionate advocate for free speech, education, and women’s rights: three causes that he raised Malala to respect deeply.
As a child, Malala was clever but shy. Ziauddin encouraged her to participate in speaking and debating competitions, and she did so, gradually working her way up to become one of the most talented public speakers of her age. She excelled in the classroom, usually ranking first in her classes. Once, when Malala was about six years old, she stole a toy from her friend and afterward developed a habit of stealing other things. When they found out about this, Malala’s parents were so ashamed of her that Malala resolved to never steal anything or do anything sinful ever again. She claims that she never has.
Growing up, Malala noticed the rampant poverty in her community. She pestered her father to allow more children to enter his school on scholarship, and Ziauddin agreed. Ziauddin and Tor Pekai raised Malala to be a pious Muslim. Despite believing in the Islamic faith, Malala noticed from an early age that Pakistanis would cite Islam when they belittled women and forbade them from learning. Malala began to develop her own interpretation of Islam, whereby women could educate themselves while also being perfectly faithful Muslims.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Malala’s community became violent and religiously extreme. The organization called the Taliban rose to prominence in the area, headed by Maulana Fazlullah. The Taliban offered a strict, repressive interpretation of Islam, whereby women should remain covered by a burqa in public, and certainly not attend school. Claiming that all other religions were worthless, the Taliban blew up the enormous Buddha carved into the side of the Swat Valley. This horrified Malala and her family.
In 2007, Pakistan’s situation deteriorates still further when the Taliban assassinate Benazir Bhutto, the female prime minister, and an important role model for Malala (who is ten years old at the time). In the aftermath of the assassination, the Taliban becomes more violent, blowing up schools across Pakistan that offer educations to girls as well as boys. Ziauddin uses his influence to write a series of articles for Pakistani papers, in which he condemned the Taliban for their violence and cruelty, as well as their nonsensical interpretation of the Quran (Islam’s holy book).
In 2009, Ziauddin uses his contacts with the BBC to arrange for Malala to write a series of diary entries about her life under the Taliban. Malala assumes a false name for protection, and her diaries become widely read in both Pakistan and the Western world. The Taliban, meanwhile, threatens to attack all women’s schools that don’t close down. Reluctantly, Ziauddin shuts down his schools, and Malala is forced to stay home from school, too. Shortly afterward, however, Fazlullah (the Taliban head) decides to allow girls to attend school, proving that Ziauddin’s protests and articles have been somewhat successful. Malala, encouraged by the success of her diaries, makes a small appearance in a documentary about the Taliban directed by an American journalist, Adam Ellick.
In late 2009, the Taliban enter a long war with the Pakistani government. Malala, along with the rest of her family, is forced to leave her home in the Swat Valley. Ziauddin takes his family to Islamabad for three months, and when they return, they’re relieved to find their home more or less intact. Throughout 2009, Malala continues giving interviews in which she condemns the Taliban for interfering with her education, and in 2010, she takes a trip to Islamabad, accompanied by Shiza Shahid, a journalist, and friend of her father. In the city, Malala sees women with educations and successful careers—this experience is enormously inspiring to her.
In 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, Malala learns that she’s been nominated for an international award recognizing commitment to children’s rights. While she does not win, she’s nominated for further humanitarian awards in recognition of her broadcasts and dairy, and wins several of them. She meets important heads of state, including the Prime Minister of Pakistan. As her reputation grows, she continues to oppose the Taliban. The Taliban threaten to kill Malala if she persists in her denunciations.
The narrative then comes full-circle to Malala’s shooting. In the aftermath of the attempt on her life, Malala is rushed to a military hospital, where a skilled
surgeon, Colonel Junaid, tries to save her life. He succeeds in performing difficult brain surgery on Malala, and Malala at first seems to be making a full recovery. While her parents and friends frantically wait for news, two British doctors, Dr. Javid Kayani, and Dr. Fiona Reynolds, arrive at the hospital. They insist that Malala is in danger of losing her life since the facilities at the Pakistani hospital are sub-par. After much negotiating, General Kayani, an important government official, agrees to arrange for Malala to be transported to superior medical facilities in Birmingham, England. Malala is flown to England while her parents remain behind—the Pakistan government delays their travel for fear that they’ll try to remain in England.
Malala wakes up in the hospital in England. Dr. Reynolds acts as her legal guardian while Ziauddin and Tor Pekai struggle to fly to England. After nearly a week, the government of Pakistan relents and allows them to visit their recovering daughter. In England, they’re immensely relieved to learn that Malala will make a full recovery, though she’ll need to spend a long time in the hospital.
As she waits in the hospital, Malala learns that she’s become globally famous following her shooting. Heads of state and celebrities send her flowers, and other humanitarians, inspired by her example, speak out against the Taliban’s brutality. Malala resolves to use her fame to crusade for education and women’s rights on a global scale.
The book ends in 2013. Malala’s family has taken up residence in England. Ziauddin works as a consultant for both Pakistan’s educational system and the committee on education for the United Nations. Malala attends school in Birmingham, focusing on her studies in spite of her enormous fame. She feels more than a little uncomfortable in her new country, not least because her classmates think of her as a celebrity, not a classmate. Nevertheless, Malala has emerged from her shooting stronger and more determined to fight injustice than ever. As the book ends, she reminds readers that they are lucky to be alive and to be loved by God. Though the Taliban tried to kill her, she concludes, they couldn’t kill the global crusade for education and equality.
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