illustrated portrait of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai

I Am Malala

by Malala Yousafzai

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As a memoir, I Am Malala primarily serves to acquaint readers with its author, Malala Yousafzai, who was sixteen years old when the book was first published in 2013. Beyond its personal dimensions, however, this autobiographical work also introduces the reader to the society of Pakistan in the early twenty-first century and provides insights into the precarious state of children in conflict zones worldwide. Malala’s fierce, ongoing commitment to education, especially for girls, and the recognition that she and her work have received both contribute to this memoir’s wider and ongoing influence.

Although few teenagers publish memoirs, Malala seeks constantly to assure readers that she is an ordinary person. This emphasis, enhanced through her inclusion of many everyday childhood occurrences, builds the reader’s identification with the narrator. The strategy is consistent with her goal of encouraging readers to support security for children, of which education is a key component. The concept of security includes safety from violent attacks, but it also extends to the warmth and support of family and community. Malala’s narrative includes her relationship with her brothers, Khushal and Atal, and substantial discussion of the role of her parents in supporting her desire for and access to education; her father, Ziauddin, established the coeducational Khushal Schools and has long been an outspoken advocate of universal education. The fact that her mother, Toor Pekai, was illiterate became an added inducement to Malala’s zeal for girls’ education.

Malala does not deny that she is different in some significant ways: the fact that she was shot in the head, survived, and had brain surgery yet avoided serious brain damage makes her story exceptional. The memoir includes chapters detailing the shock of waking up in Birmingham, England, where she was transported for surgery and where her family took up residence. She explains how the shooting on the school bus occurred and that two other girls were shot as well, and she admits that that day “changed everything.” Rather than dwell on negativity, however, Malala keeps her overall tone upbeat through detailing positive aspects of her life before the shooting. If anything sets her apart, she reasons, it is her passion for education, which was already remarkable in her early childhood.

While the memoir’s central emphasis on education is evident, the book also gives an illustration of Pashtun culture and community in northern Pakistan. The reader gains a clear impression of the Swat Valley, “the most beautiful place in the world,” as a wonderful home before the Taliban gained control. People were united in the wake of natural disasters, such as a devastating earthquake. Many parents, like Malala’s, made a commitment to educating their children, including girls, and strongly objected to the Taliban’s prohibition of girls’ education. As the political situation deteriorated, countless people, including Malala’s family, were forced to leave; she reveals the pain of leaving home and the hardships of displacement. Malala cherished the support of her extended family as her relatives took in her immediate family during this time—many of the other refugees had to stay in camps. She explains that returning “home” was bittersweet: they encountered a changed physical and social landscape that included active Taliban persecution of educators and death threats against her and others.

The importance of religion in the life of Malala, her family, and the people of Pakistan is a theme running throughout the memoir. Malala reveals that her background in a religious family has given her strength. Her grandfather was a Muslim religious educator, a fact which shaped her father’s perspectives. Malala’s interpretation of the Quran as supportive of women and her indictment of...

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the Taliban’s narrow fundamentalist views are voiced at numerous points.

The issues of voice and silence are important to Malala’s story: she shares that they greatly influenced her vision of her homeland and her future involvement in writing. Malala’s mother had a habit of making up songs. Likewise, her father was not only an educator, but a storyteller, telling his children stories about Pashtun history and reading them poems about warriors and saints. While I Am Malala was cowritten with Christina Lamb, a British journalist with experience reporting from Pakistan, Lamb has recounted that she came to work with Malala in writing the memoir instead of writing it for her or about her. Thus, Malala shares her story in her own voice, writing in first person, and comes across as sincere and passionate in her convictions. She is adamant that children have a powerful voice, both individually and collectively.

By the time of her shooting, Malala was already an experienced writer, so her skillful writing in this book is not surprising. When she began to blog about the political and social changes that were occurring in Pakistan, she was only eleven years old. She used a pseudonym, Gul Makal, hoping to protect herself; but she projected a message and a personality that gained international attention. Even as the Taliban continued to issue edicts prohibiting education for girls and to destroy hundreds of schools, her distinctive voice grew louder as it reached more people.

The growth of the Malala Fund, established in 2013, that Malala established has enabled her to expand support for numerous schools and, more generally, for education. The schools and related projects operate not only in Pakistan but also in Jordan, Kenya, and Nigeria. Beyond specifically educational projects, she and the Fund work with human rights organizations that specialize in children’s issues, such the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria. Malala’s ongoing work with these projects is detailed in a preface in later editions of the memoir.




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