Believe the hype. Malala Yousafzai is the real deal.
No, she’s not a saint. She’s not a messenger from above. She’s just a girl, a girl who likes to watch Bollywood films and Ugly Betty, a girl who plays at being a Twilight vampire with her friends — but she is an exceptionally brave and strong girl who has a message that demands to be heard.
Prior to reading I am Malala, Yousafzai’s new book that was co-written by Christina Lamb, I viewed the Malala fervor that has seemingly taken over the country (and the world) with suspicion. I believed that Malala was being coached by her father to say picture perfect things. When you hear a person say things like they’d rather speak to their would-be murderer and try to change their mind, rather than “hitting him with my shoe,” you can’t help but feel a little distrustful. After all, who in their right mind would believe that words alone can stop war and bloodshed? As it turns out — children believe that. Children are the only ones who have an unshakable trust in the power of nonviolence. We cynical adults have a lot to learn from the Malalas of the world.
We cynical adults have a lot to learn from the Malalas of the world.Indeed, one reason why I Am Malala is so extraordinary is because it is an account of war from the perspective of a child. The book does provides plenty of grown-up context. There are quick primers on Pakistan’s history and of the political situation in Swat Valley, for those who need the background. However, the heart of the book lies in the fact that it is a world seen from the perspective of a child. We hear about how Malala’s pet chicken is doing, and we hear about the female dancers murdered by the Taliban. We see Malala and her friends obsess over “Justin Bieber songs and Twilight movies and the best face-lightening creams,” and we hear about the beheadings and public floggings that make the streets of her small city run red with blood. We are struck by just how young Malala is when we read that she had decided she wanted to be an inventor so that she could make “an anti-Taliban machine which would sniff them out and destroy their guns.” Malala Yousafzai was only four years old when 9/11 happened. Her short life has been plagued by war and destruction; terror and violence are her normal.
This book has horrible scenes, scenes that no child growing up in Swat Valley had the luxury of avoiding. Malala certainly tried to distract herself with television (which she had to watch in secret for fear of incurring the Taliban’s wrath), with books, and with schoolwork, but there was no escaping the mullahs, not when they were threatening to blow up her school. Malala’s family was known to be among those who were opposed to the Taliban — and so their lives were in danger, every second of every day. Malala’s father, believing himself to be the most attractive target to the Taliban, frequently slept away from home, so that if he was caught, he would not be killed in front of his children.
During this time, Malala was beginning to do extraordinary things. She entered and won speaking competitions, she spoke to journalists and let documentary film-makers follow her around. And while she was steadily gaining fame in the region, she began to develop firm opinions of her own.
“Though we loved school, we hadn’t realized how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us. Going to school, reading and doing our homework wasn’t just a way of passing time, it was our future.”
Her goal was to get her message out there to as many people as possible — that girls deserve to go to school, and that the war and bloodshed that has taken over the Swat Valley must end — Malala, an idealistic girl, believed that this was her mission, her purpose in life.
Most of all, Malala believes in the power of words.There is no nuance in this book. There is no in-between in Malala’s world. There is right, and there is wrong; there is truth and there is untruth, and Malala is determined to be on right side of things. Her perspective is as refreshing as it is unusual. I wonder if adulthood will make a cynic out of Malala Yousafzai — but if war couldn’t, then I think we are dealing with the real thing here, a genuine idealist. Most of all, Malala believes in the power of words. She has absolute faith that the the pen is more powerful to the sword, and she commits herself to speaking out the way a soldier commits to his mission. And she has taken blows for the position she has taken; she has escaped martyrdom by a thread. Today she is a Nobel Prize shortlister, an international activist for universal education who has addressed the UN, and a major fundraiser for displaced Syrian children. Malala has earned her place in history at the tender age of sixteen, and we can predict great things coming from this young woman as she grows into adulthood.
There are those who believe that Malala Yousafzai is being co-opted by the West, who believe that Americans are using the feel-good story of her standing up to the Taliban as a justification for their various missions in that part of the world — that her very being presents an argument for the American fight against the Taliban. I believe writers like Assed Baig are correct in their assessment that Malala is being used by drone-happy politicians, and that too much focus on Malala and her story detracts from the other innocent victims of the Taliban who do not receive as much attention.
However, I don’t think they are giving her enough credit. Malala not only speaks against the Taliban, but against the Pakistani army that is at once complicit with the extremists and punitive against the local population; that promises grand things to the people of Northwest Pakistan, yet fails to deliver time after time. She speaks against the Americans who send drones into a nation they are not at war with, who kill innocent civilians in their foolhardy attempt to bomb the Taliban out of existence. (She’s even confronted President Obama about drone usage.) And she always speaks about those in her beloved Swat Valley, those who are being victimized by powers greater than themselves. To those who are furiously writing articles and op-eds speaking about how Malala’s message is being used; I’d ask them to actually listen to what this girl is saying. I’d ask them to amplify her voice, not drown it in endless speculation over who is benefiting the most from her words.
In Malala’s honor, I ask for a little more idealism, and a little less cynicism. Maybe we actually have found someone who can change the world. If we only believed it as much as Malala believes it, maybe we can actually make the world a better place.
Jaya Sundaresh lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She grew up in various parts of the Northeast before deciding to study political science at McGill University. Follow her on Twitter at @anedumacation and read her thoughts on her personal blog.