Precociously Uplifting


Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb,

I am Malala:

The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban




[introductory note: We’re back!! No, that is not the “imperial We.”  I’m not that kind of guy and tomsbooks is not that kind of blog.  Rather, after a hiatus of about ten months, tomsbooks begins its third year with two reviews on Malala Yousafzai’s “I am Malala,” one by my daughter Chloé, the other by me.  When Chloé visited us in Benin in April, by a coincidence we discovered that we were reading the same book.  It didn’t take us long to decide that when tomsbooks reappeared, we would post double reviews – daughter and father.  You can see from the two reviews that Chloé and I were both impressed with Malala and her book, but in different ways which may reflect our generational and – dare I say it? – gender differences.  Chloé has been a terrific technical assistant for me and, I’m sure you will agree, demonstrates great promise as a book reviewer.   Starting the third year of tomsbooks with Malala’s book is in a second sense a family affair, to borrow from Sly and the Family Stones: the book was my parents’ annual Christmas present to me last December,  thus a most appropriate beginning point for this round.  So please let us know what you think.  Between January 2012 and October 2013, tomsbooks posted 22 reviews, at a regular rate of two per month.  If all goes as I hope, tomsbooks is on course to match this pace for the foreseeable future tp].




           Malala Yousafzai came to the world’s attention in October 2012, after an attempt on her life by Taliban religious zealots. Fifteen years old at the time, Malala was not randomly selected by the Taliban. She had been on their radar screens for several years as a relentless advocate for girls’ education in her home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley and elsewhere in Pakistan. At one point in the book, an English doctor who was called to assist Pakistani doctors when Malala was shot likened her patient to Mother Teresa. Perhaps. Or maybe Joan of Arc — or Gabby Giffords. That the assassination attempt took place on a bus conjures images of Rosa Parks refusing to submit to the segregationist regime of Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s. But maybe the girl we meet in this book should not be compared to anyone else. In our jaded contemporary world, it would be difficult to find elsewhere a more uplifting story than that of this remarkably precocious schoolgirl.

           Even a young child, Malala entertained a fervent, simple and straightforward belief that education was the key to a better future for herself, her friends, her country and the world. At an early age, she was reading Jane Austen and Anna Karina. She writes that although she loved going to school as a young girl, she “hadn’t realized how important education was until the Taliban tried to stop us from going to school. Going to school, reading and doing our homework . . . was our future” (p.146). Malala has a particular aptitude for math and science. She loves physics, she says, because it is “about truth, a world determined by principles and laws — no messing around and twisting things like in politics, particularly in my country” (p.238). When Taliban-inspired violence forced her family to leave her home in the Swat Valley, Malala writes that the hardest part of leaving was that she had to leave her books behind. After the Taliban had been driven out and her family returned to their house, Malala was most pleased that her books were still there, while her brother was very sad because his chickens had died of starvation.

          In December 2011, Malala won Pakistan’s first ever National Peace Prize. From this point on, Malala was a celebrity in Pakistan, but also a target. She was more than a little disappointed that because of this award and the fanfare that followed, she missed too many school lessons and fell to 2nd place on her school’s highly competitive final exams. Toward the end of the book, when she had become an international heroine, she notes how the awards she was then receiving were unlike those she earned at school, which had been based on hard work and dogged mastery of challenging material. Her new awards remind her, she says, “how much work still needs to be done to achieve the goal of education for every boy and girl. I don’t want to be thought of as the ‘girl who was shot by the Taliban’ but the ‘girl who fought for education.’ This is the cause to which I want to devote my life” (p.309).

           Few readers are likely to doubt Malala’s determination to continue to work for this objective in a world where girls’ education continues to meet resistance, and not just from religious bullies like the Taliban. Malala notes that worldwide, fifty-seven million school aged children do not attend school, including thirty-two million girls. More are kept out of school for economic than ideological reasons – either their parents cannot afford school, or their community cannot afford to provide schools. But when a family can afford to send some but not all its children to school, all too often boys are given precedence over girls.

          Malala’s enthusiasm for education is likely to arouse envy among many parents with sons and daughters of the same age. But such parents are also likely to be struck by how traditional Malala is. The Malala that emerges from these pages is strongly attached to her tightly-knit family; deeply rooted in her community and region; and genuinely inspired by her religious faith — qualities many Western parents are likely to find wanting in their teen aged children.

          Malala’s commitment to education, and much of who she is, can be traced to her parents and the lovingly structured world they sought to create for her and her two younger brothers in the tumultuous Swat Valley. Until the shooting of his daughter, Malala’s father was a teacher, educator, and activist, running a series of schools in the Swat Valley, most of them for girls and boys. Much of the book turns on her father’s heroic efforts to keep his schools running in turbulent times, which included not only Taliban onslaughts but also devastating floods and earthquakes that wreaked havoc in the valley. Through all this, Malala’s father was standing up for the right to education for all young people. Early in Malala’s life, she was a young girl helping her father promote education. After the assassination attempt, these roles reversed. But throughout Malala’s life, her father has been an anchor to her life, her “comrade in arms” (p.246).

          Although very different from her father, Malala’s mother is also an anchor in her life. Uneducated, barely literate, and traditional in manner and outlook, her mother is plainly a woman blessed with an uncommon degree of common sense. Malala describes her as the “practical one in the family, while my father was the talker. She was always out helping other people” (p.81). Malala also has two younger brothers. The closeness of the family is striking, as they face together innumerable challenges, man-made and natural, thrust upon Swat Valley residents over the past two decades.

          The Swat Valley is for Malala the “most beautiful place in the world,” (p.313) the Switzerland of Pakistan. The book is full of passages extolling its natural beauty, with its “fields of wildflowers, orchards of delicious fruits, emerald mines and rivers full of trout” (p.16). The Swat Valley and much of Pakistan is Pashtun, Pakistan’s second largest ethnic group (and the largest in Afghanistan). Malala is plainly proud to be from one of the largest Pashtun tribes, spread across a wide swath of Pakistan and Afghanistan, although she remarks that “sometimes I think that our code of conduct has a lot to answer for, particularly where the treatment of women is concerned” (p.66).

          Malala senses that she is expected to be a patriotic citizen of her native land, but she ruefully finds Pakistan not yet worthy of her love. She laments the inept and corrupt political leadership that precludes Pakistan from being an effective country. Politicians in Pakistan, she says:

think nothing of stealing. They are rich and we are a poor country yet they loot and loot. Most of them don’t pay tax, but that is the least of it. They take out loans from state banks but don’t pay them back. They get kickbacks on government contracts from friends or the companies they award them to. Many of them own expensive flats in London (p.74).

          Malala is also a deeply religious Muslim. Her faith, and her knowledge of Koranic verses, keeps her pushing forward in the face of multiple adversities. She points out on several occasions in the book that the Koran does not forbid girls’ education, or mandate separate schooling for girls. Nor does it require that girls and women cover their heads in public. It is plain that Malala considers herself a far better Muslim, much more loyal to its core principles, than the fanatical Taliban. “The Taliban think we are not Muslims but we are,” she avers. “We believe in God more than they do and trust him to protect us” (p.237).

          After surgery in Pakistan following her assassination attempt, Malala was flown to Birmingham, England for further treatment, her first time out of Pakistan. Subsequently her family reunited with her in Birmingham. They now live on one of the city’s many leafy and orderly streets, but with “no rooftops to play on, no children fighting with kites in the streets, no neighbors coming in to borrow a plate or rice or for us to ask for three tomatoes” (p.303). Plainly, Malala misses the Swat Valley and yearns to return to her homeland to confront anew the many challenges of this beautiful but troubled place.

           Even though she only recently turned 17 (her birthday occurred on July 12th), Malala Yousafzai has already lived an extraordinary life, with experiences few of us in the West can fathom. The title to her book comes from her recollection that when the Taliban assailants mounted her school bus, before shooting they asked, “Who is Malala?” This inspiring book constitutes her unflinching response, replete with lessons in courage, integrity and conviction that, alas, Taliban members seem unlikely to absorb. Wherever Malala might find herself as she moves into adulthood, we can only hope that she will continue to provide the Taliban and the rest of us with more such lessons.

Thomas H. Peebles

Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)

July 29, 2014




          In April 2014, I came to Cotonou, Benin, to spend two weeks break with my parents. When I arrived, my father and I realized we were in the midst of reading the same book, “I am Malala.” After reading it, I thought it was a nice coincidence for both father and daughter to be reading the same book, as Malala herself and her father, are the central part of her book. They have a very strong relationship, and it is hard to think of a more powerful symbolic father-daughter reading.

         Malala’s father has a great deal to do with who she has become. He is a believer in education, and has clearly transmitted his love of knowledge to his daughter. He is an activist in his country and encouraged her to be vocal with her own thoughts on education and politics.

         The story of Malala is inspirational and extraordinary. In her book, she gives us her political point of view as well as a good narrative on the history of her region, which has suffered too many ills. The history of her region is very informative, and one I didn’t know nearly enough about.

          I like the authenticity in Malala’s views. She is influenced by non-violent greats like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and she firmly defends the need for accessible education for all (especially girls) in her country. She justifiably is critical of her country, but also of Western powers, particularly the United States, and their actions in her part of the world.

          In Malala’s fight for education in her country, she becomes very vocal and politically engaged. I was most impressed at the high level of education which the young girls from her school, Ayushal, receive. It seems like all the girls from Ayushal have been trained to be vocal and opinionated. The battle was uphill and difficult for them, but clearly not much will stop Malala.

           In addition to her impressive activism in politics, Malala teaches us that faith is a positive thing. I myself tend more towards atheism and I am almost anti-religious. But she pleads for inter-religious harmony, and is a great believer in her faith. This struck me as very important in a time when the Muslim faith is considered to be violent, and there is all too often a tendency to equate terrorism and violence with Islam. Malala reminds us that it is not religion which is the problem, but the way in which religion is practiced and interpreted. Her account is a good reminder that spirituality is an important part of a well balanced life.

           At the age of 15, Malala was targeted to be killed by the Taliban. And, in her straight-to-the-point fashion, her reaction to this is extraordinary :

“I don’t know why, but hearing I was being targeted did not worry me. It seemed to me that everyone will die one day. My feeling was that nobody can stop death; it doesn’t matter if it comes from a talib or cancer. So I should do whatever I want to do.” p. 224

          Even before she was shot in the head, Malala was well known. But , but after the assassination attempt, the world was shocked to find out just how insane and brainwashed the Taliban are. This led to Malala being pushed to the front of the international scene.

This isn’t the only time that a group of men have felt threatened by girls’ education. Recently, the kidnappings of young girls in Nigeria has also highlighted the opposition of extremists to girls’ education. Nicholas Kristof gives a good analysis of why women’s education can seem so scary

         Malala’s recovery from the shooting seems to be nothing short of a miracle, even if she got top-notch medical care.   Doctor Fiona Reynolds, who treated her in Pakistan, realized that if anything had happened to her, “it would have been blamed on the white woman. . . If she’d died I would have killed Pakistan’s Mother Teresa'” (p.263).

         Malala’s story started me thinking about education and its importance. It is often taken for granted, at least in our culture; and this book is a reminder of the how lucky we are to have access to education, and the power that it gives us.

          My own experience in education was underwhelming, I studied in the Belgian university system. The education was of good quality, but with too little emphasis on acquiring self-confidence and critical-thinking, and too much emphasis on pure memorization. I would not like to belittle the system, since it is highly affordable, in contrast to the American colleges and universities, and accessibility to education for all is a fundamental right.

           The situation in the Swat valley today is very worrisome. I can’t even begin to imagine a place where girls’ schools are being bombed, and acid is thrown in girls’ faces on their way to school. People who do such a thing need to be brought to justice, and it is quite sad that there are so many barriers for young women education around the world.

           However, whenever I read accounts of dismal situations elsewhere, I think we need to examine our own society. We are lucky that girls and women have access to education. But it is also good to remember that access to education does not guarantee equality of results. The barriers for women and girls may not be as brutally violent and criminal as those posed by the Taliban, but there are nonetheless invisible structural forms that still keep women in Europe and North America from full equality today. At my university, Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free Brussels University), women comprise more than half of the students. And this is a victory. Not too long ago, far fewer women were attending university. But this victory should be looked at closely. There is a clear gender divide in the subjects which women and men chose to study: men predominante in scientific fields, and women are more prevalent in social science fields. We are failing at equality in this sense. And, more importantly, although women are present, and more numerous than men in undergraduate education, as you go up the academic ladder, they slowly disappear. Fewer women pursue PHDs, and even fewer become professors, or Deans. Where are they disappearing to? Where do they go?

          I know this is nothing compared to the terror the Taliban use on the population in Swat, but it is important to know that the battle for gender equality doesn’t end with access to education.

          The power in I am Malala is that it helped remind me what my own values are for my life. Malala is an incredible girl, living by her values and her beliefs, and for what is right. She teaches us a lot and reminds us of the important things in life: non-violence, education, family and truth. And most importantly, especially for girls: “Don’t be afraid to speak up”.

Chloe Peebles

Lagos, Portugal (Europe)

August 5th 2014

Personal Blog : 


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7 responses to “Precociously Uplifting

  1. Barb

    Welcome back! I love having two viewpoints on the same book. Hope you plan to keep this up. And I really enjoyed both reviews – plus Chloe’s link to the other article was wonderful! Thanks again for a worthwhile read.

    Best regards,

    Barb Wismer

  2. Tom Thompson

    Contrarian though I am inclined to be, it is hardly possible to have anything other than utter admiration for Malala’s courageous life and expansive mind. Tom and Chloe’s reviews together provide excellent accounts of her story: Tom, as usual, gives an insightful and articulate summary of what is in the book, and Chloe pointedly and appropriately reminds us that, upon reading Malala’s book, we should resist any impulse toward self-congratulation about the status of women and girls in the West. Here we are perhaps further down the road to gender equality, but we have a considerable way to go.

    If I were to pick a bone with Malala – again, not so easy to do – it would be to wonder why she allows herself to continue to be a believing Muslim. She states that there is no basis in the Koran for separate schooling or for the all-covering clothes women are required to wear. I don’t know enough about Muslim holy writ to say myself, but I would think it unlikely that none of the societal restrictions on women, which vary in degree but seem rather consistent throughout the Muslim world, has any basis in the Koran.

    It seems that women in any flavor of Islam are consigned to a secondary place, as they are generally in the major organized religions of the world that I know of. I wonder how Malala will be able to sustain the fight for female equality in her world of Faith.

  3. Thanks to Cousin Barb for the nice comment, and to Tom for lending some of his insight to the rest of us. To respond to Tom, one might consider Malala’s allegiance to her religion as a cultural attribute, analogous to that of her Pashtun tribe, to which she says she remains a loyal and proud member even though she also says it has a lot to answer for in its treatment of women. Although there’s a difference in that Islam is based on a belief in a Supreme Being and serves as a recourse when things get tight, Islam is also part of her cultural upbringing, who she is. And let’s not forget that she is barely 17. There’s still time for her to have her own adolescent or young adult rebellion and rethink her allegiance to her family’s religion. Many of us did the same.

  4. Tom Thompson

    Maybe I did, maybe you did, many do, but most don’t. I use “maybe” because it isn’t clear to me that such a rejection of one’s family’s religious teachings in the American suburbs is as big a deal as it clearly would be in Pashtun Pakistan. The ubiquitous materialism and (relative) tolerance of our culture makes such rejection a relatively painless step rather than a leap off a cliff. In this sense it probably isn’t realistic of me to suggest Malala might be able to conduct her mission outside of her own culture.

    • Tom, I think you hit the nail on the head. Walking away from your religion as a Muslim with her deep roots in Pakistan is an altogether different matter from walking away from Lutheranism or Methodism in suburban America. In that sense, Islam ts like her tribe, she can’t get away from it, she can only try to make it better. Good comment, boy. Tom

  5. David Gross

    Tom and Chloe, thanks for your reviews. I recently finished reading I Am Malala. Like everyone, I am deeply impressed by Malala’s heroic stand for freedom and justice. Like Chloe, I appreciate gaining a deeper understanding of the Swat Valley and its cultures. Also, like Chloe, I respect Malala’s even-handed criticism of everyone responsible for the desperate circumstances of her people, both among her own people as well as powerful people in Pakistan’s government and foreigners who have wreaked havoc in the Swat Valley. Malala expects everyone to live up to her ideals of progress; she doesn’t give anyone a free pass.

    Unlike Chloe, I come closer to the conclusion that religion is in fact a problem, and I’m not at all sure that Malala’s story “is a good reminder that spirituality is an important part of a well balanced life.” I tend more towards the notion that we would be better off without religion.

    I also think Tom Thompson might have a good point that the Islamic religion forms a cultural basis for the oppression of women. Lest I appear anti-Islamic, I would argue that the other old religions themselves also create oppression for women. I appreciate the discussion in the reviews and the comments about the appropriateness of taking pride in our culture versus the need to reject it in the interest of progress. I tend more toward rejecting cultural norms that no longer serve the interests of freedom and justice.

  6. Pingback: Refining the Rubric: tomsbooks@5 | tomsbooks

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