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Telegraph: Review of ‘I am Malala’

By Sayeeda Warsi

Malala Yousafzai’s story begins with her parents being commiserated with after producing a baby girl. In their part of northern Pakistan, she says, rifle shots ring out in celebration of a baby boy’s arrival. But there is no such fanfare for females; their destiny is to cook and clean, to be neither seen nor heard.

When Mr and Mrs Yousafzai were married, a small boy was placed on their laps to encourage the birth of a son. It didn’t work; their firstborn was a girl who ‘popped out kicking and screaming’. And that girl’s father was mocked by relatives for bothering to add her name to the family tree, which, of course, only featured men.

So how did Malala, who barely warranted a mention in her family’s genealogy, become destined for the history books, a powerful symbol for girls’ universal right to an education?

“I am Malala” tells us how.

Almost one year ago, the world became aware of Malala when she was shot by the Taliban for what they deemed a crime: going to school, and fighting for that right.

For fifteen years before that she had grown up with her two younger brothers (the boy-on-the-lap trick eventually worked) in Mingora, the biggest city of Swat Valley in Kyber Pukhtunkwa (KPK), previously known as the North West Frontier.

Malala gained fame – and some notoriety among the strict, anti-Western mullahs – for writing an anonymous blog on girls’ education for BBC Urdu, before revealing her identity and campaigning more vocally on girls’ rights.

But her story, written with renowned foreign correspondent Christina Lamb, starts with details of her upbringing, her grandparents’ and parents’ backgrounds, and her childhood.

The narrative, however, soon becomes like a treacherous KPK road: unpredictable and full obstacles. En route to Malala’s attempted assassination, we read about the 1999 the military takeover of Pakistan; 9/11; yet another war in neighbouring Afghanistan; the assassination of Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto; and the killing of Osama Bin Laden – all through the eyes of a girl who is almost as young as this tumultuous young century itself.

After Malala turns ten, Taliban rule hangs over the lives of the people of Swat, like the mountains of the Hindu Kush. She sees the fanatical, barbaric extremists destroy the cherished Buddhist landmarks of her city. She sees them brainwashing her neighbours and pocketing their wages. She also sees, with her own eyes, the beheaded victims of their purges.

But the recurring theme of her tale is the assaults on the rights of women and girls. Every chapter seems to shed a glaring light on women’s subordination.

Their situation deteriorates further when the Taliban gain control of Swat. Despite Islam’s rich history of women in public life, as scholars, politicians, businesswomen and doctors, the Taliban launches an assault on the very heart of equality, blowing up girls’ schools. Malala’s father, a prominent school owner, looks to be in grave danger.

And yet, on October 9 2012, it is the very embodiment of girls’ education that is targeted: Malala. At point-blank range, she is shot in the head on her school bus, the bullet passing her left eye and going into her shoulder. Two of her friends are also hit.

Amid the blood and the chaos and the confusion, the author does not miss a pertinent parallel: that while her attackers are seeking out this outspoken proponent of female education, her mother is, for the first time since she left school at the age of six, attending a class for lessons herself.

This scene, and the ensuing chapters on her touch-and-go state and bit-by-bit recovery, make for harrowing reading. For me, what brought this closer to home was that Malala was the same age as my daughter. When news of her attempted assassination attempt hit, I was quick to make the case to Foreign Secretary William Hague for the UK to offer what assistance it could to help her.

What was even more personal and poignant was reading her reflections on her country. I spent time living in Pakistan, and I am now proud to be the government minister with responsibility for that country – the country from which my parents originate.

Like Malala, Pakistan is relatively young, but it has suffered a great deal in a short time. In recent years, Pakistan has suffered more than 40,000 losses from terrorist attacks. It has also endured some of the world’s worst natural disasters, from the 2005 earthquake to the 2010 floods. At the same time, its political pendulum has swung, shakily, between elections and military takeovers since its birth in 1947, with its first ever full democratic elections taking place only this year.

Malala and her family have an answer to some of the man-made problems: education. As she says, describing her father: “Education had been a great gift to him. He believed that lack of education was the root of all Pakistan’s problems. He believed schooling should be available for all, rich and poor, boys and girls.”

That is why the UK government is working with the government of Pakistan to deliver better quality and more widely available education. This will put four million children in school by 2015, recruit and train new teachers, and construct or rebuild more than 20,000 classrooms. As Malala says, education can transform Pakistan’s future.

She may not have warranted an entry onto her family tree, but today Malala is known across the world. “I’m one of the few fathers known by his daughter,” her father is quoted as saying towards the end of the book. She has turned a potential tragedy into a positive – bringing to the world’s attention that crucial issue of girls’ right to an education. This is certainly not the last we have heard from Malala.

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