She Is Malala

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.

malala cover

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.


42 thoughts on “She Is Malala

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  1. Her’s is indeed a story of great courage. Yet, how many young people in this country take education for granted or, worse yet, toss it aside with a snicker?

  2. I haven’t read the book but I appreciate your wonderful and thorough review here, Emily. I’ve been curious about it and as a fellow educator I feel that I should read this book.

    I know what you mean about that “something more” kind of bravery that Malala has. I think it’s a particular gift that the majority of us don’t have, to be able to fight for one’s beliefs at *that* level – at the point where you are willing to give up your life for it. I don’t have it either. I don’t know. I would do it for my child, but I don’t have it in me to do it for a wider cause. It feels shameful to admit that and yet I know it’s also a high ideal that few of us are capable of. So I do think there is a justifiable reason she is represented in such mythical terms.

    1. You’re right that this sort of courage is extraordinary, which I think makes it so valuable and admirable. I hope to be a strong person like that someday, but it isn’t looking likely. For now, I’m happy to praise and honor people like her who take a stand and allow me to reap the benefits. I do think you would like this one!

  3. Emily, thanks for sharing. I love Emmeline Wells quote. To me, bravery need not hold a gun and, in fact, it often does not. Malala is continually brave for standing up to narrow minded and frightened perpetrators. They are frightened because she is a truthseeker and speaks up about it.

    The bylaws of every religion of which I am aware were crafted by men. These bylaws became foundations of the mores and cultures for communities and countries. Under the guise of divine inspiration these male authors subjugated women and gave them fewer rights. These bylaws are so powerful, that thousands of years later, they still have a stranglehold over more fervent people.

    We need folks like Malala, Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, etc. to say we deserve a place at the table and these bylaws were meant for another time that has long passed. I am weary of people using imperfect religious texts as a weapon to hold women and others down.

    I am sorry for the soapbox speech, but this Big Tall Guy has gotten frustrated with people who think it is OK to infringe on other people’s rights. All the best, BTG

    1. Yes! Preach it! I love what you’ve said here, especially that part about bravery not holding a gun. I think I’m gonna add that quote to Goodreads with your name on it. 🙂

  4. Loving your post – women who are pavers and pioneers are HEROS and they certainly make way for the rest of us too:) I have this book on my reading list and need to move it towards the top now. Happy Thursday!

    1. Yes, women and girls like Malala make things better for the rest of us. I’ve been contemplating this a lot lately, and I’m overcome with gratitude for people who are willing to do this kind of thing so that things are better for the rest of us.

  5. Wow! Emily words fail me, I love this blog….“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”…..These are the very sentiments with which I have tried to teach my own children over the years. Its not about women raising up and replacing men or becoming the very thing they themselves have had to suffer and endure. It is about the truth that we are stronger together!!!

    My own daughters, my sons, Malala and people like you Emily give me great hope for things to come. Your wonderful work, your understanding of life leads me to believe that slowly but surely things are changing for the bettermet of all and although we have a way to go at least we are on the way.

    God bless you abundantly throughout all that you seek to do for him and for his children. Keep Shining and keep believing and keep writing. In Deo Speramus 🙂

    1. I love that your daughters are learning these lessons as well, and how lucky they are to have Malala as a champion for them. Thank you for your kinds words! You are so right about working together and using our differences to make us stronger, not to use them as tools of divisiveness.

      1. My 2 eldest sons both champion not only their wives but the rights of women everywhere. One is an English/Media teacher the other is a Minister in the Church. It is essential to all that we teach a child the way to go, whether male or female, that is what will make all the difference and bring the equality that we lack. Have a great rest of the day and God bless you lots 🙂

  6. Beautiful post, Emily. I love the personal reactions and responses you included in the post, as always; they help me approach the book with a more personal (and less academic) attitude.

    I have been meaning for some time to read this book, and now I must bump it up higher on my to-read list. I want to know more about this girl who has become so powerful and inspirational because of her bravery and passion for education.

  7. This definitely sounds like a book I will have to read, what an incredible girl. Your writing was very evocative and made me think.
    PS. Of course this is fictional and should not be compared to Malala’s story in any way, but the novel I once mentioned, Nervous Conditions (about a young girl’s struggle for education in Rhodesia – what is currently known as Zimbabwe) seems to me to be a relevant read. (I also promise this will be the last time I mention it to you, I just really enjoyed it!)

    1. I really need to read that one! I always love a great book about girls and education. I a glad you enjoyed this review. Malala is incredible. You put it well!

  8. As usual, you’re so thorough that you give a wonderful sense of the book. My youngest sister is 12 — do you think it would be appropriate reading for someone her age?

  9. Love your post!! I agree with you completely, people like Malala are the people who inspire us to be better persons. She is truly an admiration!

  10. Malala has a beautiful soul. She’s a remarkable young lady. She’s a role model for all women in the world. All females deserve an education. The highest education they can receive. I hope, some day, Malala will become Prime Minister of Pakistan and win the Nobel Peace Prize. That would be awesome! !

  11. Lovely review, Emily! We have a slightly abridged copy at home, and my daughter and I have been reading together about Malala. She is a truly inspirational figure, and I am so happy to be sharing such a positive role model with my daughter.

    1. Yes! Isn’t that the most wonderful part? Our daughters have this amazing role model. I get teary just thinking about Malala and her goodness and strength.

      1. @Emily: I know! There are so few positive role models these days that young girls can relate to. Malala is one of them. Another one I introduced my daughter to is Helen Keller. She loves them both.

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