Chatter leading up to the announcement by the Swedish Academy of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been particularly lively. At the center of the talk is 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist for girls’ education from the Swat valley who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban one year ago today.
Since making a remarkable recovery, young Malala has assimilated into a British school in Birmingham, been named among TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people on the planet, launched a foundation for girls’ education with sidekick Angelina Jolie, and addressed the United Nations in a stirring speech on her 16th birthday. What more could a 16 year old achieve?
A Nobel Prize, for one, which Malala may very well win this Friday. While some detractors have questioned the wisdom of giving her the prize due to her need to lead the life of a normal teenage girl in her formative years, by and large support for the idea is overwhelming. If she is selected by the judges, she will officially be the youngest laureate ever.
In the midst of all the attention, it is easy to forget one key point. While on one level Malala is an extraordinary model of courage experienced well beyond her years, on another she is a teenage girl struggling to find her way in the world just like any other.
Her just-released memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, coauthored with British journalist Christina Lamb, could offer a more rounded portrait of the girl at the center of this media storm. The book shows another side of the iconic teenager, from her love of television shows Ugly Betty and Masterchef to her common fears over banalities like her hair and clothes. The shooting upon which her life’s abrupt turning point hinged receives a conspicuously short treatment.
After barging onto a school bus and shouting “Who is Malala?” the Taliban member who shot her did so with his hand shaking, according to her friend who witnessed the horrific act. Although a brief chapter of the book paints the scene of the shooting itself, the details are vivid. “The air smelt of diesel, bread and kebab mixed with the stink from the stream where people still dumped their rubbish,” Malala recalls.
The bulk of the book is dedicated to her life and upbringing in Swat, popularly known as “Pakistan’s Switzerland” and the historical crossroads through which invaders like Alexander the Great once passed. In more recent years, the remote region has seen, of course, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban. The memoir details the way the Islamic fundamentalist group proceeded to shutter DVD stores and barber shops, detonate the region’s ancient Buddhist heritage and ultimately blow up schools.
And most relevant to Malala’s story, these same hardliners spewed vitriol at the very concept of girls’ education. “They destroyed everything old and brought nothing new,” Malala wrote of the group. She also said, “Killing people, torturing people and flogging people … it's totally against Islam. They are misusing the name of Islam.”
As her memoir reveals, far from shunning her background and faith, Malala still identifies herself as a believing Muslim who is proud of her Pashtun heritage. It is her culture’s attitude towards women that she takes issue with. “When I was born, people in our village commiserated with my mother and nobody congratulated my father,” she writes.
As The New York Times journalist Adam B. Ellick points out, even as he got to know Malala’s family and befriended her father, an educator and crusader for Swat’s schools named Ziauddin Yousafzai, the young heroine’s mother was noticeably absent at nearly all of their gatherings. Ellick is widely credited with bringing Malala into the world’s eye by filming a documentary about her in 2009 called Class Dismissed: Malala’s Story. In The Times, he writes:
“Malala’s father may be a progressive educator, but her family is very traditional… Malala’s own mother is illiterate, and Ziauddin told me she did not interact with men outside the family. I was never able to speak with her, and rarely saw her at all, because, as her husband explained, ‘she was not habituated to be on camera.’ … One day while recording, I pressed him on the topic, saying: ‘It’s not just the camera. It’s the culture. Otherwise, we could all have dinner together.’ He replied, ‘You are right. We have some limitations.’”
Regardless of the outcome of the Nobel announcement on Friday, it’s safe to say that Malala is making major strides in breaking down those limitations.