I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb (2013)

Several of my students have read this book that’s been on my to read list for a long time, and I finally picked it up this winter break.

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While Trump is calling for a deportation of all Muslims and other Republican candidates and governors are pushing to “close” their state to all refugees, I thought it would be a good time to read Malala’s story, an inspiring story of one Muslim girl’s willingness to speak out and fight for the education of girls in Pakistan, her country, as well as in other Islamic countries, and the price she paid for her outspokenness.  I cannot imagine any readers do not know who Malala is, but as a short reminder, at 15, she was shot in the head by the Taliban while riding home from school.  She was eventually flown to England for treatment and rehab where she continues to reside today (at least, I think she does).  She has become a world-wide symbol for peaceful protest of girls’ denial of education, and she was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at age 17.  According to Wikipedia, “on her 18th birthday, Yousafzai opened a school in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, near the Syrian border, for Syrian refugees. The school, funded by the not-for-profit Malala Fund, offers education and training to girls aged 14 to 18 years. Yousafzai called on world leaders to invest in ‘books, not bullets.'”

As I read this book, I was struck by so many details that I had either forgotten or never known.  Here are a few that stood out:

  • Pakistan is only 68 years old, created in 1947 when British India was divided into two countries: Pakistan, an independent Muslim state and India.
  • Like almost all Muslim populations, Pakistan is made of up Sunni and Shias and within each of those groups there are a bazillion sub groups, sects, clans, tribes, etc., many of whom have fought over power, land, religion, government for years–or centuries.
  • Pakistan has had a history of revolving governments ranging from secular Democracy to corrupt tribalism to fundamentalist sectarian or some combination of all of them.  The rise of the Taliban can be traced to various fundamentalist leaders who, among other things, rid the country of all modern devices and blamed an earthquake on the people’s sinful behavior (sins such as dancing and watching Western TV). For an uneducated, highly religious people, this type of brainwashing can easily succeed–especially when the Taliban and its supporters helped with the earthquake clean-up effort whereas the inept Pakistani government did little.
  • Once the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley–a once independent culture and people of Northwest Pakistan–they essentially erased the culture and history, taking it back to a time and place of religious, male domination.

And through this turmoil, Malala spoke out and fought for girls to continue their education.

It is easy to see the parallels between what the Taliban did to the Swat Valley and other areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and what ISIS is doing now: recruiting people through propaganda; preying on people’s fear, religious beliefs, and lack of education; and offering them false power  and promise of a better life.  It’s a complicated mess, and though I do not see Malala as a wholly unbiased reporter of this experience, through her story we can certainly see how incredibly difficult it is to develop a successful strategy to deal with an area and a history that few understand.

The recently released documentary about Malala’s experience with the Taliban and her fight for women’s rights is called He Named Me Malala, directed by Davis Guggenheim.  Link to movie trailer.

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