- - Friday, June 20, 2014

By Malala Yousafzai (with Christina Lamb)
Little, Brown and Company, $26, 327 pages

Malala Yousafzai is only 16 years old. Yet she has already seen, experienced and done more than most of us ever will in a lifetime.

This young activist has fought an inspirational battle for girls’ education rights in Pakistan. Malala’s unwavering support for the important principles of liberty, democracy and freedom has inspired many people. She has also become a prime target for radical extremists and terrorist groups, and put her life in great jeopardy.

That’s what makes her autobiography, “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban,” so compelling. It’s a brave girl’s tale in an unsafe country, and it reveals her fierce determination to make the world a better place.

Malala’s story begins in what she described as “the most beautiful place in all the world the Swat Valley, is a heavenly kingdom of mountains, gushing waterfalls and crystal-clear lakes.” She was named after Malalai of Maiwand, “the greatest heroine of Afghanistan” who “inspired the Afghan army to defeat the British in 1880 in one of the biggest battles of the Second Anglo-Afghan War.” Her family, who is of Pashtun origin, lived in the valley’s largest town, Mingora.

Ziauddin, her father, studied at Swat’s Jehanzeb College and worked as an English teacher. An education reformer, he “longed for the freedom that would come with running his own school.” In particular, Ziauddin “wanted to encourage independent thought and hated the way the school he was in rewarded obedience above open-mindedness and creativity.” With the help of a friend, he founded the Khushal Public School to do just that.

It’s quite clear where Malala’s independent spirit comes from. Her involvement in politics and activism in the face of the Taliban’s looming presence comes from her father’s advice and encouragement. As she writes, “My father used to say, ‘I will protect your freedom, Malala. Carry on with your dreams.’ “

Her dream came to fruition quite by accident.

Abdul Hai Kakar, a Peshwar-based BBC radio correspondent, was searching for a “female teacher or a schoolgirl to write a diary about life under the Taliban.” The first girl chosen was “Madam Maryam’s younger sister Ayesha but her father found out and refused permission saying it was too risky.”

When Malala heard her father discussing this issue, she piped up, “Why not me?” She ultimately worked out an arrangement with Hai Kakar to speak on the phone between 30-45 minutes in Urdu. He would write up their conversation “and once a week they would appear on the BBC Urdu website.”

Malala refers to Anne Frank’s book and experience hiding from the Nazis in Holland as a “very powerful record” — and, one assumes, an inspiration for her own diary. To protect her identity, Hai Kakar suggested the pseudonym Gul Makai, “which means ‘cornflower’ and is the name of the heroine in a Pashtun folk story.” With her first entry on Jan. 3, 2009 titled “I Am Afraid,” a new chapter in her life began.

The book’s strongest sections pertain to her growth as an activist. Malala’s Web diary quickly became a popular destination on BBC Urdu, especially her strong position on the importance of education for girls. In her view, the “Taliban is against education because they think when a child reads a book or learns English or studies science he or she will become Westernized.” Yet as she correctly points out, “[e]ducation is neither Eastern nor Western, it is human.”

Her public stature increased, as did the Taliban’s terrorist rage. On Oct. 9, 2012, several gunmen boarded her school bus and demanded to know, “Who is Malala?” They attempted to assassinate her; one bullet passed through her forehead and barely missed her brain. Malala was eventually flown out of Pakistan to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England, for successful reconstructive surgery. She still lives there.

The assassination plot turned out to be a tactical error. “I realized what the Taliban had done,” Malala writes, “was make my campaign global.” The Pakistani government condemned the Taliban for this attack, and searched for her attackers. Malala has since won many awards, spoken in front of the United Nations, and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Malala’s campaign to educate young Pakistani girls is gradually winning hearts and minds. While there’s still a long way to go, real progress has been made. She should be proud of her efforts and accomplishments. Let’s hope her book will inspire others to fight for freedom and democracy, too.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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