Nowhere is that lesson more evident than in the story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pashtun girl from Pakistan’s Swat Valley who was born of an illiterate mother, grew up in her father’s school, read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” by age 11 and has a gift for stirring oratory.
And nowhere did that lesson go more rebuffed than in the verdant Swat Valley, where hard-line jihadists swept out of the mountains, terrorized villages and radicalized boys, and where — one muggy day last October — a Taliban fighter leapt onto a school bus, shouted, “Who is Malala?” and shot her point-blank in the head for speaking out about her God-given right to attend school.
Malala tells of that life-shattering moment in a riveting memoir, “I Am Malala,” published this past week even as she was being cited as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Co-written with Christina Lamb, a veteran British journalist who has an evident passion for Pakistan and can render its complicated history with pristine clarity, this is a book that should be read not only for its vivid drama but for its urgent message about the untapped power of girls.
The story begins with Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, the son of an imam (a preacher of Islam), who was instilled from boyhood with a deep love of learning, an unwavering sense of justice and a commitment to speak out in defense of both. Like Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, Ziauddin was convinced that aside from the sword and the pen, there is an even greater power — that of women — and so, when his firstborn turned out to be a bright, inquisitive daughter, he raised her with all the attention he lavished on his sons.
Ziauddin’s greatest ambition, which he achieved as a relatively young teacher, was to establish a school where children could be raised with a keen sense of their human potential. As a Pashtun, he came from a tribe that had migrated from Kabul and settled on the lush but war-weary frontier that separates Pakistan from Afghanistan; as a Yousafzai, he was the proud inheritor of a rich legacy that could be traced to the Timurid court of the 16th century. But he was also a poor man with high ambitions and not a cent to his name.
Malala was born in 1997, as her father was struggling to found his school against a sea of troubles: a deeply corrupt government official to whom he refused to pay bribes; a mufti who lived across the way and objected to the education of girls, a practice he denounced as haram, or offensive to Islam; and the vicissitudes of a fierce jihad, visited upon them from time to time in Taliban raids that evolved from harsh rhetoric to outright killings. By the time Malala was 10 and the top student in her father’s surprisingly flourishing school, radical Talibs had penetrated the valley all the way to the capital of Islamabad and were beheading Pakistani police, holding their severed heads high on the roadsides.
“Moniba and I had been reading the Twilight books,” Malala recounts, and “it seemed to us that the Taliban arrived in the night just like vampires. They appeared in groups, armed with knives and Kalashnikovs. . . . These were strange-looking men with long straggly hair and beards and camouflage vests over their shalwar kamiz, which they wore with the trousers well above the ankle. They had jogging shoes or cheap plastic sandals on their feet, and sometimes stockings over their heads with holes for their eyes, and they blew their noses dirtily into the ends of their turbans.”
That was when the school bombings began and Maulana Fazlullah, a young extremist who had once operated the pulleys at a river crossing, became known as the Radio Mullah, a direct arm of the Taliban, installing a systematic rule of terror over the Swat Valley. Fazlullah announced the closing of girls’ schools; he lauded the killing of a female dancer; his goons killed a teacher for refusing to pull his trousers above the ankle the way the Taliban members wore theirs. “Nowhere in Islam is this required,” the teacher had cried out in his defense.
“They hanged him,” Malala relates dryly, “and then they shot his father.”
But for all the terror around them, Malala and her family were hardly cowed into submission. Ziauddin continued to rail at his country’s Talibanization in government offices, to the army, to anyone who would listen, gaining a name throughout Swat for his rectitude and courage. And although Malala learned to go to school with her books hidden under her shawl, she continued to study and excel, eventually giving public speeches on behalf of education that her father would help write. By 12, even as she pored over “Anna Karenina” and the novels of Jane Austen, she was writing a BBC blog about her experiences under the pen name Gul Makai.
When, in 2009, the family was forced to abandon the increasingly violent border area in “the biggest exodus in Pashtun history,” the Yousafzais made their way to Peshawar, where Malala did radio interviews, met Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, turned 13 and continued to speak out for girls’ education. Passing through Abbottabad as they made their escape, the family could not have imagined that Osama bin Laden himself had found refuge there. Finally winding their way home, they discovered that their beloved school — in a metaphor for their own defiance — had become a holdout against the Taliban for the Pakistani army.
We know how this story ends, with a 15-year-old child taking a bullet for a whole generation. It is difficult to imagine a chronicle of a war more moving, apart from perhaps the diary of Anne Frank. With the essential difference that we lost that girl, and by some miracle, we still have this one. Disfigured beyond recognition by her assailant’s gun, Malala was rushed to Peshawar, then Rawalpindi and finally to Birmingham, England, where doctors reconstructed her damaged skull and knit back the shattered face. But her smile would never be quite the same.
Resolute, Malala has never hidden that face — not when the Taliban insisted on it, and not when she emerged from her battle for survival to stand before the members of the United Nations in July and deliver her message yet again, a little louder.
“There is good news coming from the U.K.,” the head of military operations in Swat had told Malala’s desperate parents as they awaited word of their child’s condition. “We are very happy our daughter has survived.”
“Our,” Malala points out, because she had become the daughter of a nation.
But she is ours, too, because she stands for the universal possibility of a little girl.
Marie Arana is the author of the memoir “American Chica” and the biography “Bolivar: American Liberator.” She was also a scriptwriter for the recently released film about education in the Third World, “Girl Rising.”