As most of you know, education is important to me. I wouldn’t be pursuing a Ph.D. if it weren’t. Not only do I believe in education, but I believe in education for girls, and some of the most moving books I’ve read are about this subject. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith is one of my favorites on this subject.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody that I enjoyed I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013) by Malala Yousafzai. I first began reading this book over the holiday break from school. But when I checked my syllabi for spring semester, I realized that it was on the reading list for my girls’ studies class. So I reluctantly returned it to the library, happily ordered it online, and now I’ve finally finished it. While the book isn’t magnificently written, nor is it a gripping page-turner, it is an essential and moving narrative about the importance of educating our girls. Malala has a voice because of her drive for education, and she teaches us of the importance of a Father’s love and support for his daughter.
I always cry when I hear John Mayer’s song “Daughters.” In it, he sings, “Fathers, be good to your daughters. Daughters will love like you do. Girls become lovers who turn in to mothers, so mothers be good to your daughters too.” Malala’s father embodies this song. Malala is a daughter and his oldest living child, yet he decided to put all of the love and attention in her that he would have for a boy; he even celebrated at her birth the way families in Pakistan normally only do for boys. This signaled to Malala, and her community, that she was valued and that her father had all the same dreams for her that he would have for a son. This seemingly small action is huge, as it has led to a host of consequences. While some of them are challenging and heartbreaking, they have also led to Malala’s position as a figure of hope and an advocate with a strong voice for so many girls in her country and around the world. Her father said, upon the death of another girl, “Tell me how can one live without daughters” (p. 260).
I was struck by the power in Malala’s voice the first time I heard her speak. I was listening to NPR on the freeway, and suddenly I heard this mature yet young voice speaking about how she had been shot and how she had forgiven her attacker, but this voice did not waver in its conviction. She spoke confidently about her passion for education and vowed not to ever back down. This was powerful enough on its own, but the radio broadcast juxtaposed this with the voice of the Taliban fighter who shot her. He spoke with a voice of hatred and control. He was angry and unkind. His voice, against hers, made it obvious whose voice spoke more truth and whose voice would triumph. Hers has more power.
Because of her voice, Malala has become a legendary figure. While realistically we know she is just a person, a young girl from a war-torn country, she has become larger than life. Most people know of whom you speak if you simply say, “Malala.” Her book furthers this status, establishing her birth and young childhood in mythic and fairly-tale like terms. I don’t think this is an accident, and while it may seem self-aggrandizing and a little over the top, I’m willing to believe. I’m willing to give Malala the superstar heroic status. She’s earned it, and the millions of girls she represents deserve a figure representing them. I wouldn’t take a bullet as bravely as she did, and I wouldn’t be brave enough to speak my truths to the point of putting my life in danger. I won’t even do it to put my reputation under the microscope.
From this mythic status, Malala uses other strong and important figures to back up her argument for education in the book. She reviews the history of Pakistan, fascinating to me because of my work as an editor of country reports and a daily worldwide security document a few years back, and because of my world literature class in which I reported on the history of and conflicts between India and Pakistan. Malala does this in detail, invoking the historical and religious figures that make her country and their traditions great. She quotes Jinnah, who said, “No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women” (p. 31). Her story is certainly evidence of the potential women have to be powerful, and how threatening women’s power can be to certain groups or ideologies.
Women and their places and treatment in society is of large concern to Malala. She often mentions her mother’s illiteracy and the sorrow it is to her mother. She is also critical of the way women are treated in her community, noting, “I think our code of conduct has a lot to answer for, particularly where the treatment of women is concerned” (p. 66). We could apply her idea to every society. She and her father fight this mistreatment. Her father established and ran girls schools, only to face much criticism. The argument from detractors was religious, that “A girl is so sacred she should be out in purdah, and so private that there is no lady’s name in the Quran, as God doesn’t want her to be named” (p. 94). This is an argument I’ve heard a lot, that women and girls need to be protected and put on pedestals rather than allowed to learn and grow and experience the world as men do. I disagree, and so does Malala and her father. She wrote, “The Taliban could take our pens and books, but they couldn’t stop our minds from thinking” (p. 146). This reminds me of a favorite quote I have from an early female leader in my church, Emmeline B. Wells, who said, “I believe in women, especially thinking women.”
Malala is also inspired by strong female figures. She invokes the name and legacy of Benazir Bhutto, assassinated just a few years ago. She talks of Anna Karenina and Jane Austen. Malala is familiar with many strong women and has sympathy and love for her mother and her aunt Najma, both of whom cannot read. Of her aunt, Malala wrote, “I was still trying to get my head around the fact that she had been living in the seaside city of Karachi for thirty years and yet had never actually laid eyes on the ocean. Her husband would not take her to the beach, and even if she had somehow slipped out of the house, she would not have been able to follow the signs to the sea because she could not read” (p. 218). Malala is illustrating the fact that her aunt and women like her, without education, are prisoners. Malala looks to the women who have found freedom through education as her models.
I have a hard time comprehending how brave Malala is. I consider myself to be brave in certain situations. I can force myself to participate in competitions that are nerve-wracking. When I was young, I often got on stage and performed piano solos and won spelling bees, despite my pounding heart and shy nature. Now that I’m older, I can force myself to be on national television, but not without losing my appetite and having a restless week of no sleep beforehand. However, Malala has this sort of bravery plus the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it, but she isn’t afraid to lose her life or the good opinion others have of her in the cause she knows to be right. She is willing to make enemies and get shot for the cause of girls’ education. Her willingness and courage is undoubtedly set to affect many lives for the better. When she speaks with her father about this, he tells her, “At night our fear is strong . . . but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again” (p. 138). He also says, “The truth will abolish fear” (p. 139).
The other great quality Malala demonstrates is her willingness to use her education for the good of others. She wrote, “I always think about solutions to problems” (p. 277). Her experiences, bravery, and book aren’t meant to be self-promoting, but instead they are meant to help solve a problem. She wishes to use her education to better others and the situation that she and other women face. I find this more admirable than her bravery. We should all be so good as Malala as to apply our knowledge to problems in our communities.
Lastly, Malala demonstrates gratitude. This is something I am always working on, and it is a virtue lauded by my religious community. We have so much to be grateful for, and Malala reminds us of that through her experiences. After she is shot in the head and recovering in the hospital in Birmingham, England, she writes of her recovery and what she has learned. Here’s what she said:
“We human beings don’t realize how great God is. He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes which see a world of colors and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, a nose which smells the beauty of fragrance, and two ears to hear the words of love” (p. 301).
Her words remind me of one of my favorite children’s songs from my church’s primary association for children. It is called “My Heavenly Father Loves Me,” and the words go like this. (Click the link to hear the music.)
Whenever I hear the song of a bird
Or look at the blue, blue sky,
Whenever I feel the rain on my face
Or the wind as it rushes by,
Whenever I touch a velvet rose
Or walk by our lilac tree,
I’m glad that I live in this beautiful world
Heav’nly Father created for me.
He gave me my eyes that I might see
The color of butterfly wings.
He gave me my ears that I might hear
The magical sound of things.
He gave me my life, my mind, my heart:
I thank him rev’rently
For all his creations, of which I’m a part.
Yes, I know Heav’nly Father loves me.
May we all be a little more like Malala, willing to “choose good ways” and with the “desire to help people” (p. 301). We could change so much if we acted on our convictions with the bravery and gratitude that Malala has.
She’s a new hero of mine. She is Malala.