Malala's story

Tuesday , February 25, 2014 - 10:57 AM

Daud Khattak, Foreign Policy

“I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban,” by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013).

It is sheer luck that Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban in October 2012, is alive today and able to more vigorously continue her mission of increasing access to education for every girl and boy. But while both Malala and her struggle for universal education are being praised the world over, there are people in her own country who believe she has become a pawn in the hands of foreign powers. The controversy has become so great that the government in her own province, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, forcefully canceled an event to launch her memoir, “I am Malala,” on Jan. 28.

Specifically, detractors question Malala’s patriotism when she chooses to address Pakistan’s founder by his real name, Jinnah, and not as Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader), as he is known in Pakistan. Religious-minded critics question why she does not use the mandatory phrase “peace be upon him” when discussing the Prophet Muhammad, and the Taliban and their sympathizers believe Malala is spreading pro-Western ideas with her speeches and writings.

Others have raised objections to Malala referring to herself as “first a Swati and Pashtun, before Pakistani,” an indication of the diverse cultures and identities that exist in a land of 180 million people. While Malala is proud of her faith, some critics have accused her of spreading secularism, a word synonymous with vulgarity in Pakistani culture. In Pakistan’s highly radicalized society, the mere accusation of practicing or leaning toward secularism can cost one his or her life.

It is in this context that “I am Malala” emerges as a skillfully crafted narrative history of Taliban rule in Swat, a serene valley that was once home to Buddhist kings who named it Uddyana, or “garden.” This 352-page book, co-authored by veteran British journalist Christina Lamb (with whom I filed several articles for the Sunday Times in 2008 and 2009), is the story of Malala and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, who together challenged the Taliban’s ban on girls’ education in 2008.

Each of the 24 chapters gives an account of Malala’s childhood, from her birth in 1997 to the beginning of her “second life” in Birmingham, England. The book is divided into five major parts, each of which begins with a famous tapa, the most popular genre of Pashto folk poetry.

Although the prologue and epilogue focus on Malala -- her life, her struggle, and her mission -- it is Lamb who deftly moves the story forward, using her own knowledge of the area, the people, and the culture, as well as the politics and security situation within Pakistan.

At some points, however, Lamb takes over and starts speaking through Malala, such as when she describes “Benazir Bhutto’s cheap glass bangles at her wedding,” or how Col. Muhammad Ameer’s attempts to organize the Taliban were “like weighing frogs.” It is also doubtful that Malala knows intimate details about the army’s side businesses, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law, or U.S.-Pakistan spy games.

On other occasions, it is Ziauddin who dominates the narrative by speaking about the Taliban and the failures of Pakistani politicians, saying: “We people of Swat were first seduced by the Taliban, then killed by them and now blamed for them. Seduced, killed and blamed.” But this is understandable as the book is also the story of his quest to create a school with equal learning opportunities for girls, currently the neglected half of Pakistan’s northern rural society.

Ziauddin and Malala’s struggle and fight for education was complicated around 2007 when Mullah Fazlullah -- now the leader of the Pakistani Taliban -- took over the Swat Valley, turning it from a “Valley of Peace” to a “Valley of Death.” With the help of his armed brigade of volunteers, Fazlullah imposed restrictions on individual civil liberties, forcing men to grow beards and women to cover their faces. His regime also prohibited women from entering markets; banned music and television, even in the privacy of one’s own home; and warned schools against educating girls as such practice was against their interpretation of Islam.

Only a few people stayed put through those tumultuous days, among them Ziauddin and Malala. They continued speaking out at a number of public forums, giving interviews to local and international media, and reaching out to Taliban leaders, asking them to lift restrictions on girls’ education in the valley. Of this time, Malala writes: “They can’t stop me. I will get my education if it is at home, school or somewhere else. This is our request to the world -- to save our schools, save our Pakistan, save our Swat.”

Beyond describing life under the Taliban, “I am Malala” details the Pakistani military’s attempt and failure to clear the Swat Valley in 2009. Although declared an army victory, the Taliban leadership remained in place, arousing suspicions among the local population that the army had no interest in pushing the militant group out. “If there is a snake and a lion coming to attack us, what would we say is good, the snake or lion,” Malala asks her classmate Attiya, comparing the army and the Taliban.

The operation in Swat exposed Malala to the flaws of the country’s political leadership, and encouraged her to become a politician. “When we were IDPs [internally displaced persons] I had thought about becoming a politician and now I knew that was the right choice. Our country had so many crises and no real leaders to tackle them.” Though Malala may think more of becoming a local politician, Ziauddin wants to see her sworn in as prime minister, often teasing his son Atal that he will be Malala’s secretary.

Despite merciless killings and beheadings in their neighborhood, combined with death threats against both father and daughter, the duo remained steadfast, continuing their campaign for education while criticizing both the army and the Taliban. They survived, and though “I am Malala” tells the tale of that triumph, it is also a story for each and every girl who chooses to break societal taboos, challenge the clergy, declare war against illiteracy, and believe in the power of the pen.

Khattak is a Pakistani journalist currently working as a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He has worked with Pakistan’s English dailies The News and Daily Times, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News, and has written for the Christian Science Monitor and London Sunday Times.

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