Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

I am an over-educated woman who took her education for granted.  In fact, I spent ages fighting against having to go to school; I was always looking for ways to get out of going or, when it became an option, skipping classes.  I look back at that time, and realize that a part of that was boredom – I don’t have the patience to do things I don’t care to do.  But I also look back on that time and realize how much of a waste it was on my part.  That message was especially reinforced to be while reading my last read, I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb.

You’d have to be living under the proverbial rock to not have heard about Malala in the last year.  Malala and her family are from the Swat valley in Pakistan, and she and her father came to the attention of the global community in their efforts to secure education for the children of Pakistan.  Malala’s quest was always personal; as the daughter of an educator, the love and quest for knowledge was seemingly bread into her.  However, with the rise of extremists in Pakistan following the 9/11 New York terrorist attacks, Malala and her father experienced increased pressures to stop speaking against the Taliban and government, and then to stop speaking for the education of girls.  In late 2011, undaunted by an increasing climate of hostility, Malala continued to be a voice to the world on behalf of Pakistani girls who wanted (she might argue needed) education.  In response, the Taliban showed themselves to be the barbarous cowards they are, and ambushed her school bus on its way home and shot her in the face (two class mates were also injured in the attack).  I am Malala traces the history of Pakistan, the Swat valley, and Malala’s family until that fateful day in October 2011, and then details her recovery in the UK and her continued efforts to raise awareness of the need for education of children, and the atrocities committed by the Taliban against the people of Pakistan.

This book is heartbreaking.  It brings into the light the declining situation faced by women in countries were religious extremists are limiting their rights.  Malala’s life story, told from the perspective of a young woman who wants nothing more than to learn and make her family proud of her, adds a human face to the plight of these women.  For many of Malala’s contemporaries, being forced to drop out of school at young ages to help care for their households, being married at young ages, and living in fear of coming to the attention of local religious leaders who can beat you in public for not following religious laws is a life that is almost unimaginable to our Western sensibilities, and yet it’s the daily reality for millions.  

Reading Malala’s account made me re-examine my understanding of Islamic culture; I think we (Westerners) get so caught up with focusing on the almost medieval religious laws that some extremists are trying to force on their people that we overlook the modern nature of daily life in the Middle East.  What struck me most about Malala’s story is that she and her friends were fans of the Twilight books, and when they decorated their hands with henna for celebrations, they would work chemistry equations into the designs.  I will freely admit to having been ignorant and naïve about how Malala and her contemporaries lived – behind the veils and burqas are women just like us in the West; they want to be free to learn, love and live as they will.  The face the Taliban would like present to the public is only a fraction of the reality, and so I learnt quite a lot from Malala.

While reading I am Malala, I found myself wondering who the actual author of the work was.  Christina Lamb is credited as a co-author, and I assume she wrote the passages about the political history of Pakistan, but I would also assume that Malala’s father wrote passages for inclusion; the story is told in the first person (with Malala narrating), but in Malala’s description of her father’s love for her, I think the reader can infer that its her father’s words and not her own.  More than that, there are certain passages that read like they were written by a light-hearted but conscientious teenager (stories about gossiping and hanging out with friends) that don’t quite match the tone of the next paragraph which speaks to the fractioning of political parties following in Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  I’m sure Malala was involved with the writing of this account, but I do have doubts that she was the principal author.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s a beautifully written account of the past and current state of affairs in Pakistan, and brings to light a major humanitarian crisis that is facing the world; without education, ignorance and hate will take root in civilization, and spread like a cancer.  I am Malala reminds us that there are human faces associated with a crisis that is occurring half a world away.  Once you’ve read the book, I would also encourage you to donate to the Malala Fund (malalafund.org), which has the stated mission of encouraging education for all children, of both genders.  

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