To all the girls who have faced injustice and been silenced. Together we will be heard.
Some months ago Media Diversified’s editors described Malala Yousafzai as the bravest girl in the world. That accolade will always be pinned to her chest in my mind after reading this, in which I learned that the most courageous do not know they are brave.
Folks will read this, perhaps, to discover what made Malala; what familial context and historical moment was capable of producing her. Her account of her birth, her welcome into the world by her father, is in heartbreaking contrast to the reception of most girls who share her background. She was made to feel special, and she became someone with the self-confidence to stand up for her rights, to aspire to be a politician even in the shadow of the murder of her icon Benazir Bhutto, to title her story ‘I am’.
Nevertheless, what is extraordinary about Malala seems dwarfed by what is not. Her story is universal on the one hand, in that she is like young learning-lovers everywhere – bright school girls preoccupied with competing to come top of the class, falling out with besties and getting into mild mischief, and particular in the sense of local context; her life as a Pashtun in Swat and as a young Muslim. In many ways, Malala fits comfortably into the time and place of her birth. She loves her valley, described as the most beautiful place in the world, and is at home in her cultural and religious traditions, sharing her father’s convictions on the need to develop gender equality and rights.
The machinations of the Taliban and related groups, the Pakistani state and the USA are all discussed here with clarity; the book has apparently been written for maximum accessibility. I was grateful for the political background, but what I really loved, what emerged glittering, astonishing, bright as the sun, was the image of an ordinary life completely unfamiliar to me. I have no idea, I never hear, how Pashtun teenagers live, how teenagers everywhere beyond the walls of Euro-N America live, except rarely, selectively, through the tinted and shape-shifting lenses of literature.
There are a few disquieting moments here when Malala mentions the use of skin-lightening creams, which she and her friends have used uncritically. However, she is forthright about faults and mistakes – her tendency to get into jealous arguments, and a time when she stole from a friend, showing self-awareness and maturity.
Yesterday I heard that Malala had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. I saw her on TV, her sunny face smiling yet serious, framed by her bright hijab as she opened a Birmingham library (now, we in the UK are graced by her presence, though in her book she makes clear her wish and deeply felt longing to return), as she waved to cameras, the politician in training. I look at her with love, with an ache in my chest, the passion of a fan.