illustrated portrait of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai

I Am Malala

by Malala Yousafzai

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I Am Malala Themes

The main themes in I Am Malala are women’s rights, courage, religion, and education.

  • Women’s rights: Malala is an outspoken proponent of rights for women and girls, rights the Taliban is committed to destroying when they seize control of the Swat Valley.
  • Courage: Both Malala and her parents, Ziauddin and Toor Pekai, show remarkable courage after Malala’s shooting and in their defiance of the Taliban.
  • Religion: The extremist interpretation of Islam enforced by the Taliban contrasts sharply with the progressive form of Islam practiced by the Yousafzais.
  • Education: Malala shows how establishing secular schools can help to combat extremism in Pakistan.


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Women's Rights

Malala consistently challenges the traditional Pashtun code of conduct for women as well as the Taliban's strictures on feminine agency. It can be argued that I Am Malala is a feminist bildungsroman. Malala's upbringing was unusual in that her parents allowed her to attend school, where she received a broad liberal arts education. Throughout her formative years, she was exposed to both Western and Eastern literature, philosophy, and science. Because of her progressive upbringing, Malala harbors decidedly liberal views about women's rights. This puts her at odds with the Taliban, a militant group that advocates purdah (a life of seclusion) for all women and girls. In the book, Malala consistently exposes the Taliban's abuses against women.

During General Zia's regime, a woman's evidence in court counted for only half of a man's. Additionally, women or girls who could not produce four male witnesses to substantiate rape claims were sent to jail for adultery. These rape victims were labeled kari (adulteress), and many also became the victims of honor killings at the hands of family and community members. During the Taliban occupation in the Swat Valley, many women were flogged, tortured, and murdered for failing to meet the extremist group's rigid expectations of women.

Yet, the stories of Benazir Bhutto and Malala reinforce the significance of women's rights in Pakistan's struggle for religious and political freedom. The extremist ideology promotes the persecution and victimization of women; where such an ideology dominates, there can be no true freedom. In the words of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, "No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men." While Benazir's senseless death and Malala's shooting highlight the suffering women endure when they speak up, the courage exhibited by both women makes them role models for Pakistan’s women. Essentially, the theme of women's rights exposes the true human holocaust that is the direct result of the Taliban’s reign of terror.


In the book, Malala, Toor Pekai, and Ziauddin consistently exemplify courage. Despite the threats to his life, Ziauddin refused to moderate his criticism of the Taliban's evil actions. After Malala's shooting, Toor Pekai reassured Ziauddin that he should not blame himself for his advocacy of Malala's activist work. Toor Pekai's courage and defiance in the face of her daughter's tragedy reinforces Ziauddin's assertion that "heroism is in the Pashtun DNA" (Chapter 18: The Woman and the Sea). Malala's own courage was especially prominent after her shooting. Despite numerous surgeries and a long rehabilitative process, she was determined to continue her work of advocating for women and children's rights. Even though the Taliban accused Malala of maligning its efforts to establish a global caliphate, Malala refused to acknowledge the spurious claim. The theme of courage highlights how the Yousafzai family's worldview enabled it to remain firm in its convictions in the face of unimaginable tragedy.


With each Taliban atrocity, Malala was led to question the group's punitive interpretation of the Quran and its adoption of arbitrary rules that have no basis in scripture. Malala was particularly appalled by the Taliban's savage and sadistic treatment of women. The problem of conflicting Islamic ideologies permeates the book. Indeed, the Taliban's brand of militant Islam is antithetical to Malala and Ziauddin's progressive form of Islam. As opposed to militant Islam, progressive Islam is tolerant of ideological differences.

In Pakistan, however, the Taliban's hold on respective Pashtun communities remains strong. Even though the country is under secular Muslim rule, many Pakistanis think that the government is too corrupt. Against such a backdrop, the Taliban's promise of law and order is an attractive proposition. For...

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its part, the group's manipulation of public opinion is key to its success. During national emergencies, it positions itself at the forefront of aid efforts. In times of peace, it highlights these past philanthropic acts to give it a veneer of respectability and to promote what it calls an unadulterated form of Islam. In the Taliban's theocratic empire, anyone who violates its prescribed rules is characterized as an apostate or sympathizer of the West. The Taliban does not support women's rights, minority rights, or LGBTQ rights. Throughout its reign in the Swat Valley, it skillfully leveraged the malleability of scripture to support its violent ideology and to encourage civilians to trust in a Muslim caliphate that could vanquish a threatening West. In the book, this brand of militant Islam is pitted against Ziauddin and Malala's progressive brand of Islam.


In the book, Malala points out that the average Pakistani loves a good conspiracy theory. However, she laments that this national tendency to trust in conspiracy theories is more harmful than helpful; it increases the average civilian's susceptibility to misguided religiopolitical doctrines. In this regard, education is an important tool in the counter-terrorism arsenal. Impoverished communities are often preyed upon by groups like Fazlullah's. Extremist groups swell their ranks with enthusiastic men who believe that they will receive material and heavenly rewards for fighting to establish a global caliphate. Many of them die in gory battles, where Sunnis are pitted against Shias or Taliban members are pitted against the Pakistani army.

The goal of establishing secular schools like the Khushal School is to counter the religious madrasas that teach extremism and intolerance. In the madrasas, the Quran's injunction to kill unbelievers is not examined in a historical context; rather, the madrasas teach that a perpetual, violent offensive against non-Muslims is necessary to salvation. These religious schools operate on a literal interpretation of the Quran's most belligerent verses, ignoring the principle of ijtihad (Islam's own traditions of critical thinking and debate) in their academic discourse. In the book, Ziauddin's support for ijtihad is apparent in his words to Malala: "Only learn what God says. His words are divine messages, which you are free and independent to interpret" (Chapter 10: Toffees, Tennis Balls, and the Buddhas of Swat). Instilling this type of independent thinking in schools is critical for combating extremism.


For Ziauddin and Malala, the Pakistani army's seeming lack of resolve in defeating the Taliban was troubling. Even though the army claimed to have driven out the Taliban in the 2008 Swat Valley offensive, Taliban executions and Fazlullah's daily broadcasts continued unchallenged. In the book, Ziauddin theorized that the ISI's (Pakistani intelligence services) deep connections to the Taliban had compromised its ability to annihilate the Taliban threat. Essentially, the Pakistani government's strategy was to leverage American largesse to finance its own military operations against India. In 2015, Husein Haqqani (Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States) warned that Pakistan would use American military equipment against India rather than the Taliban. A year later, Reuters reported that President Obama authorized reduced funding to Islamabad due to the latter's support for the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These newer political developments reinforce Ziauddin's perspective and highlight the danger of compromised political objectives.


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