Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Malala relates that she was born at dawn and that this is considered auspicious in her Pashtun community. Though the birth of a girl is rarely celebrated in Pakistan, Malala’s father, Ziauddin, rejoiced and named her after the Afghan heroine Malalai of Maiwand. Malala is proud that she was named after the woman everyone calls the Pashtun Joan of Arc. Malala and her family live in Mingora, the largest town in the Swat Valley. In ancient days, the Swat Valley was a Buddhist kingdom; in fact, Malala's home is located in Butkara, or "place of the Buddhist statues." Islam did not come to the Swat Valley until Mahmud of Ghazni's invasion in the eleventh century. Malala tells us that her family consists of Ziauddin (her father), Toor Pekai (her mother), Khushal (her younger brother), Atal (her youngest brother), and herself. Malala is equally proud of both her parents; Toor Pekai is beautiful and devout, while Ziauddin is an influential community leader. He is the principal and owner of the Khushal School as well as a frequent participant in literary societies and Pashtun jirgas (tribal councils). Even at an early age, Malala remembers chafing against the limitations placed upon girls.
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Malala confesses that her father stutters and that her paternal grandfather, Rohul Amin, made Ziauddin's struggles worse during his childhood. Rohul Amin was a local imam and high school theology teacher. He was a spectacular public speaker and had little patience for Ziauddin's stutters. Despite this, Ziauddin was cherished because he was a son. Ziauddin's mother nurtured his love for words, and her faith in him led him to forge his own path in life. When Ziauddin was eight, General Zia seized power from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the duly elected prime minister. Bhutto was executed, and General Zia began a process of Islamization in Pakistan. Malala notes that women's rights were reduced during this difficult period. Then, when Ziauddin was ten, the Russians invaded nearby Afghanistan. Suddenly, General Zia became the darling of the West. The Americans financed his fight against the communist Russians while mujahideen (resistance fighters) poured into Pakistan from all corners of the Muslim world. Ziauddin signed up to fight against the Russians, but Malala notes that he eventually began to question the legitimacy of militant Islam.
Malala's story is narrated in the first person, and the first two chapters provide important information about Pashtun Swat culture and the Islamic religion. Malala's family belongs to the Yousafzai tribe and is obligated to live under the wesh feudal system, where land is rotated between families every five to ten years. Every village is ruled by a khan, who is both landlord and warlord. We learn that Pashtuns live by a code called Pashtunwali, which encompasses all aspects of daily life. Pashtunwali focuses on principles of hospitality, justice, honor, courage, pride, and forgiveness. Every Pashtun is obligated to protect his guests from harm without expectation of reward. The sanctity of female virtue is also a valued principle in the Pashtunwali code. A woman’s virginity and reputation are passionately defended by her male relations, as a bride's sexual purity is paramount. To guard their chastity, Pashtun women are required to adhere to purdah, or a life of seclusion. At the end of Chapter 1, Malala laments that older girls and women cannot frequent public places without male supervision and accompaniment.
Her father's proclamation, however, that "Malala will be as free as a bird" foreshadows Malala's eventual public debut as a champion of girls' rights. Ziauddin is also compared to a bird; in Chapter 2, Rohul Amin christens his son "Ziauddin Shaheen" (Ziauddin the Falcon) after Ziauddin conquers his stutter to win the district's annual public speaking competition. Not only does Ziauddin "soar" higher than other birds through his win, he also cherishes uniquely progressive views about religion and women's rights. In this, Malala notes that her father is "different from most Pashtun men." On the day Malala is born, Ziauddin orders his friends to throw candy, dried fruits, and coins into her cradle—an honor usually reserved for newborn baby boys. In Chapter 1, Malala tells us that Ziauddin's poem "The Relics of Butkara" reiterates how mosques and temples can coexist peacefully. Ziauddin's independence of mind and spirit finds an answering chord in Malala. Malala notes that her father cherishes his Muslim faith but rejects extremism, preferring instead the inclusiveness of secularism. Thus the comparisons of Malala and Ziauddin to birds foreshadow their eventual launch into the forefront of the battle for women's rights in Pakistan.