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REVIEW | FALL 2013

Hero in Exile: A review of "I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban"


By RAFIA ZAKARIA

“NO PASHTUN LEAVES HIS LAND OF his own sweet will,” Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban, quotes her grandmother as saying. “Either he leaves from poverty or he leaves for love.”

If the dark, but ultimately triumphant, drama of surviving the Taliban is the central narrative of I Am Malala, the peripheral refrain is the pain of exile. Malala’s family left Pakistan’s Swat Valley on Oct. 9, 2012, the day she was horrifically wounded by a Taliban gunman on her way home from school. They have not been able to return.

Written with noted British foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, Malala’s story begins on the afternoon of the attack, when she and her classmates piled into the Toyota truck that ferried the girls from school to home. Tracing back from the bloody details of that assassination attempt, Malala shows the reader a Swat Valley resplendent with fruit trees and gushing springs, cozy family dinners in rooms warmed by wood fire, childhood games and snacks of walnuts and honey and raisins.

Her early childhood, when her father, a dreamer and crusader for education, sets up a ramshackle school and goes door-to-door collecting girl students, is spent in a world before conflict, before the Taliban, before fear. Malala, named for a legendary Pashtun hero, was a lucky child, the much-loved daughter of a man who granted her freedoms denied most other girls.

It is against these images—an idyllic mountain valley, a cherished Pashtun culture and father who stands up for women—that the heartbreak of Malala’s narrative becomes pronounced. Her clear voice, beautifully captured by Lamb, conveys Pakistan’s rapid devolution from a country where hope is possible to one overtaken by despair. On the heels of the earthquake of October 2005, which killed 73,000, come the Taliban and
their affiliates, cowing a bereft population with their violent, intolerant version of faith.

Malala’s school, which her father had painstakingly built, is criticized; a few months later,
in January, the Taliban bans girls from classrooms. The family flees Swat to escape fighting between the army and the Taliban, but returns a few months later to pick up a wary facsimile of their previous life. Malala resumes school and speaks publicly on girls’ right to education—which brings her to the Taliban’s attention.

She was then just 15 years old.

The question of return is important to Malala. “I know I will go back to Pakistan,” she writes from England, where she is still receiving treatment for her injuries, “but whenever I tell my father I want to go home, he finds excuses,” including her continuing need for medical care and the better schools available to her and her brothers in the U.K. Meanwhile, the dangers she left behind in Pakistan loom ever larger, expelling more and more women from public space.

The week before this riveting memoir was published, the Taliban killed at least 60 people in Peshawar, not far from Swat. In a statement released
at that time, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Taliban reiterated that if Malala returned, she would be attacked again. She remains in exile with her family, in a rented house in Birmingham, still a schoolgirl, and now a hero.

RAFIA ZAKARIA is author of The Upstairs Wife and writes for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, and Al Jazeera English.

Reprinted from the Fall 2013 issue of Ms. To have this issue delivered straight to your door, Apple, or Android device, join the Ms. Community.

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