Malala is a complicated book. It is also an extraordinary story that all of us should read, but I have to confess that I do not know what might be a good age to begin reading such a story. It depends on one’s view of the world, I suppose, and the sorts of enchantments and disenchantments one wants a child to experience. Malala’s is a story of indisputable courage, of absolute defiance and resistance, but it is also unequivocally terrifying. The politics of storytelling, particularly autobiographical storytelling, are complicated, but I must confess to some discomfort about the book being co-authored by Patricia McCormick. Although a highly acclaimed writer who writes specifically about young adults in the ‘developing’ world, we must always ask questions about authorship and the dynamics of race, gender, place and class in the telling of these kinds of stories. I cast no aspersions on McCormick as a writer of course, but simply want to raise a larger question about what it means to have Malala’s story co-authored.
Malala’s story begins in Swat, Pakistan, and it chronicles her devastating journey from schoolgirl to political activist. As with most children-speak, although Malala certainly does not inhabit what would be considered a ‘normal child-space’, the voice is gentle, simple, strong and sincere. In this sense, the book is easy to read, but to really grasp what she’s saying would take far more time. Indeed, I think much of the political and social landscape (and even the geographies) remain inscrutable to readers, but it opens Pakistan up in an extremely vulnerable way through the words, deeds and thoughts of a young girl.
It is impossible not to be moved by Malala’s story, but as adults reading it, there are several uncomfortable political questions that go totally unanswered. Chief among these is the politics of ‘international intervention’ in Pakistan in particular and the ‘developing world’ in general. Unfortunately, because Malala is telling a very personal story, the nuances of religious and extremist politics are lost in a “west-as-saviour” viewpoint, if we are not reading carefully. There is also the overarching question of political and cultural misogyny that runs like a crimson slash throughout the story that, once again, is too big a question for a fifteen-year-old to tackle in detail. This does not, of course, take away from the critical things that Malala is talking about – the right to an education, the right to gender equality and the right to joy and childhood.
Malala’s recounting of the Taliban takeover of Pakistan is truly heartrending. To witness this violence through the eyes of possibly the worst affected is both powerful as it is frightening. Once again, the weight of the violence falls upon the women. This is not only about political or Islamic extremism, but about the real consequences of patriarchy and misogyny in all the worlds that we inhabit. One recognizes the patterns and realizes that these things are often simply a matter of degrees, rather than absolutes. There is a moment in the book when Malala explains that she would always serve tea to the men because she liked to listen to their serious talk of politics and the world, while the women sat together elsewhere, discussing other gentler worlds, closer home. She goes on to speak about the women who, as they grew older, became quieter and quieter, except at these gatherings: “But to see these women chatting casually – their faces radiant with freedom – was to see a whole new world.” This is one of the cornerstones of Malala’s courage, her quiet, incredibly insightful observations about the nuances of gender and the myriad ways in which women resist, even in places of unimaginable violence. In this, Malala’s family and teachers emerge as true-blue heroines and heroes that everyone deserves and ought to have. The assurance of unconditional love, faith and courage is what ultimately supported Malala through her ordeals, and her father represents everything that feminism looks for in allies. The journalistic community’s support for Malala’s single-minded determination to speak is also worth remembering in a time of almost total media distrust.
The way Malala understands, describes and practices Islam is also very beautiful and powerful, bringing home the reminder that most people relate to their goddesses and gods in much the same ways; and the xenophobia and Islamophobia emerging from the ‘first world’ are incredibly dangerous and damaging. Malala’s Allah is a loving, benign god and her inadvertently honest description of Talib Islam really reminds us that our gods are truly our hangmen, and we do so little work to excavate faith from places of hatred. Malala’s commitment to wanting an education, both for herself and for all women in Pakistan, is the ultimate expression of this faith.
Encouraged, and lovingly ensconced in lofty, noble ideological values of free speech and thought, Malala fights her valiant battles – she speaks out, gives interviews and writes for the BBC. The world comes to know of things that they are scarcely capable of imagining. Malala speaks and we listen, but are we listening carefully? Are we hearing this brave young woman tell us that there are different ways to do battle and that we must be cognizant of other ways of living? Or, are we hearing her say that there is only one good way to ensure the rights of people? Are we able to see that Malala’s survival, after the horrific Taliban attack was part-chance and part-publicity aided, and that so many other Malalas, with softer voices and frightened parents, have already died?
Everyone should read this book. But read it carefully and thoughtfully. Don’t read it monolithically, don’t read it as a battle between good and evil, and as an ultimate triumph of good. Malala’s story is all that, but it is much, much more, if you allow yourself to really hear what she is saying.
By Anjana Raghavan
Authors: Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick
Price: Rs 299.00
Hachette India, 2014
Subject category: Contemporary/Non-fiction/Autobiography