1st Thursday [4]: “I am Malala” — The Story of Malala Yousafzai

#NepalEarthquake« My book blog for May begins with a call to lend a hand to the people of Nepal, if you can, through a trustworthy organization giving relief to those in critical need at this time. In 2005, a devastating earthquake struck northern Pakistan. While that country’s government and the international community were slow to respond, Islamic militants stepped in and helped the people. They earned the trust and support of the region’s residents. Then they started recruiting them, corrupting them, depriving them, and often murdering them. Fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was one of their intended victims. Who will be there in Nepal? »

Chop, chop, chop, drip, drip, drip…

In the span of just five years, eager young learner Malala Yousafzai was banned from going to school along with her female classmates, was shot in the head from close range, recovered, and then won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to guarantee the right to an education for every child in the world.

MalalaI am Malala is a very personal story, welcoming the reader into her family’s home in the Swat Valley of Pakistan as friends and other family are welcomed there. It is a way of life of neighborly hospitality and familial dedication, values many of us in the West have long forgotten. The contrast doesn’t end there, as we in parts of Asia, Australia, Western Europe and North America enjoy all the luxuries and simplicities the 21st century has to offer, while in Malala’s hometown of Mingora, people live in shacks with leaking roofs, dump waste into streams and onto neighborhood piles that are pillaged by homeless children, and eat very simple meals.

Yet there are hints of modernity, including television, computers, and video games. Malala and a friend loved reading the Twilight books.

However, mostly life in Swat in the twenty-first century resembled that of America in the early twentieth or nineteenth. But life was not really bad until the Taliban entered the valley. Though fearing for her father, her school, and her life, Malala continued to speak out, once citing a verse her father kept in his wallet–a different version of the same one I shared in an earlier post about the Holocaust.

Malala was born an activist and spokesperson for women, girls, and the underprivileged. She learned to read, and to speak multiple languages, and continued to finish first in her class even as it grew larger and larger. Her intelligence was undeniable; it would have been an inexcusable waste to deny it the resources to expand. But that is precisely what the Taliban intended. They tightened their grip on the region, and banned an increasing number of behaviors and activities by women and girls. But Malala remained resolute:

“My mother always told me, ‘Hide your face–people are looking at you.’ I would reply, ‘It doesn’t matter; I’m also looking at them'”

They followed the strictest interpretation of the Koran, disallowing dancing, television, nearly all music, and destroying historical artifacts over a thousand years old. They confiscated and destroyed CDs, DVDs, TVs and computers, and banned vaccines, all supposedly in the name of Allah. The more I read of their resistance to human advancement, the more I was reminded of the story of the man and the flood:

One day a man was watching TV when breaking news came on, explaining that a flood was certain in his area, and everyone was being asked to evacuate as soon as possible. But the man thought to himself, “I’m religious. I go to church, I pray every day. God loves me, and He will save me.” So he stayed put.

Within days, flood waters had covered the road in front of his house and reached halfway up his yard. He stepped outside to see a rescue boat floating down the street, and someone inside it called to him, “Come on down, we have room and we’ll take you out of here.” But he told them, “No, thank you! I’m religious. I go to church, I pray every day. God loves me, and He will save me.”

By the same time the next day, though, the water had reached his roof, and as he sat on top of it, a helicopter flew over. A rope ladder extended down and a soldier climbed down to him and said, “Come with me, we’re your last chance at escaping!” Again, the man replied, “Go on without me. I’m religious. I go to church, I pray every day. God loves me, and He will save me.”

Finally, the man drowned.

Upon reaching Heaven and meeting God, he said, “I don’t understand. I was religious. I went to church and prayed every day. I thought you loved me. Why didn’t you save me?”

God replied, “I gave you a television, a boat, and a helicopter. What were you waiting for?”

–Origin unknown. This is my own retelling.

If God didn’t want us to have televisions, boats, helicopters, CDs, DVDs, computers, or vaccines, He wouldn’t have given us an intellect. All of those things are His creations, not ours.

When terrorists brought the World Trade Center, icons of mankind’s evolution, crashing down in the US, Malala was only four years old. Her life was as different as it could possibly be from the people of Manhattan.

“Even for the adults it was hard to understand–the biggest buildings in Swat are the hospital and a hotel, which are two or three stories. It seemed very far away. I had no idea what New York and America were.  We did not realize then that 9/11 would change our world too, and would bring war into our valley.”

buddhasThe Taliban destroyed ancient Buddhist relics in the region. It reached its hand so far into the culture of Pakistan that their grip on it rivaled that of Hitler’s. I have never feared my government taking my guns; what I fear is when they come for my art–for that is when I will  know they have truly gone mad.

Through it all, Malala remained vigilant and outspoken. Her parents were supportive, but didn’t want her to be an activist. Her mother was especially indifferent to her cause.

“…When I won prizes, she said, ‘I don’t want awards, I want my daughter.  I wouldn’t exchange a single eyelash of my daughter for the whole world.'”

Her father ran the local school, and through tremendous personal expense built the student body. Boys and girls alike attended his school. As radicals shut other girls’ schools down by burning them to the ground, he could only wonder if his would suffer the same fate. A close friend of a friend was murdered by the Taliban. He thought he might be next. Instead, the target was Malala.

One of her last memories before she was shot was seeing a man slaughtering chickens, along the road on the bus ride to school.

Chop, chop, chop, drip, drip, drip…

The school van was stopped. Two men looked in the back and one of them asked, “Who is Malala?” While none of the passengers spoke, the other girls looked at her. A second later began a chain of events that would make Malala even stronger and give her greater voice than she had before. Though they didn’t realize it yet, their shot had backfired.

Her story quickly spread around the world. She had become a national hero. One of the western doctors who saved her life joked later:

“If anything had happened to her it would have been blamed on the white woman… If she’d died I would have killed Pakistan’s Mother Teresa.”

During her recovery, she received a letter from a Taliban commander:

“He said he was writing to me because he was shocked by my shooting and wished he could have warned me beforehand.”

But just when you think a Taliban was talking sensibly:

“He wrote that they would forgive me if I came back to Pakistan, wore a burqa and went to a madrasa.”

She and her family have not returned to Pakistan. Now they are citizens of the world.

I Am Malala reveals how peace teeters on a precipice, and how fear can keep us from defending our neighbors against unspeakable atrocities. But above all it is the story of an incredibly brave girl and flawless young mind.

There will always be those who will take a stand against injustice and the denial of basic human rights. But it takes someone listening and reacting to truly make a difference. Are we listening? Do we know the answer if someone asks, “Who is Malala?”


Class Dismissed, a short (and very graphic) New York Times documentary featuring Malala and her father, Ziauddin.

The Malala Fund, helping girls worldwide obtain an education.


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