“I was ten when the Taliban came to our valley. Moniba and I had been reading the Twilight books and longed to be vampires. It seemed to us that the Taliban arrived in the night just like vampires.”
Moniba is Malala’s best friend, classmate and fellow over-achiever, and together they are the one thing that much of the Malala coverage in the last week has failed to keep in mind: regular teenagers.
Like most of the world, I have a touch of Malala Fever. It’s hard not to. When I was 16, I could barely drag myself to school in time for first period, let alone be bothered to defend my right to attend at all. Surely if someone had stopped my bus (or 1993 Dodge Neon) mid-commute and shot me in the face over the matter, I’d have given up education entirely. Sorry pre-calculus — shot in the face. So long gym requirement — shot in the face. And so on.
But Malala, as we all know, did no such thing. After being shot in the eye socket over her (and her father’s) advocacy for girl’s education, she became a global activist. At 16, the girl has already been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and appeared on The Daily Show. Oh and right: [co]-written a book.
I Am Malala is part memoir, part cultural dissertation, and part political manifesto (since ladies learning stuff is somehow “political”). It takes readers through Malala’s family history, her upbringing and her pre- and post-shooting experiences in activism, but is also imbued with her thoughts and insights on the history of Pakistan, and of Islam. She comments frequently on Muslim and Pashtun traditions, in ways that seem circumspect until you remember she was shot simply for speaking out.
In the last week or so, the conversation about Malala has shifted in a way I find both boring and predictable. Suddenly, the news isn’t that a 16-year-old girl is advocating for education despite a near-fatal attempt on her life by the Taliban; the news is that the West is turning the girl advocating for education despite a near-fatal attempt on her life by the Taliban into a celebrity.
“Western fawning over Malala has become less about her efforts to improve conditions for girls in Pakistan … and more about our own desire to make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy with a celebrity and an easy message” laments one blog. “Angelina Jolie visits refugee camps–good for her, but the crucial work of providing clean water to thousands of people trapped in such unsanitary conditions gets underfunded, and children die of cholera,” points out another. In the span of year, Malala had done the only thing perhaps less expected than being shot in the face: she got too famous.
There’s a small, mostly silly point to be made by the To Love Malala Is to Simplify Malala camp. It’s true that she’s gotten attention perhaps disproportionate to her accomplishments, and it’s true that the world is full of Malalas doing great things without any glowing press or invitations to meet Jon Stewart. BUT. I don’t think that celebritizing (celebrating?) someone as the face of an issue is mutually exclusive with appreciating others involved in that issue, and I don’t think that the Western reaction to Malala means people are dumbing down her message and/or that this reaction is somehow more important than the message itself. (Also: Human embodiments of civil rights movements certainly predate TMZ.)
Of course, the loudest critics aren’t in the West. Malala has plenty of detractors at home, the home she writes about so effusively in her book, the home about which she said this week: “Even if its people hate me, I will still love it.” Certainly, in her circumstances, to stay quiet would have been easier. It’s what most children would have done; it’s what most people do.
And this, ultimately, is why we shouldn’t let the conversation about the reaction to Malala overtake the reaction itself. No one is arguing that awareness is a catch-all solution, or that one girl’s story is the only story, or that Pakistan’s history has nothing to do with America’s complex and oftentimes vile influence. But understanding those things doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still be doing a global slow-clap for the 16-year-old who put down her Twilight novels to try and change the world.
I Am Malala is a fascinating glimpse at Pakistan through the eyes of a teenage girl, albeit one from a well-off and educated family with comparatively progressive views on religion. In this sense, it’s a must-read for anyone seeking a fresh perspective on what’s happening there. To compare one’s teenage life to Malala’s is to think about the Middle East more intimately, and to appreciate anew some of the basic luxuries of being American. (Except in some cases. Because I’m not going to say the fundamental Christian right is a liiiiittle bit like the Taliban….but I’m not not going to say it.)
No matter who you think should have won the made-up prize we give out to delude ourselves into believing world peace will ever be a thing, you have to respect Malala. She’s crushing it, and you know how it goes when you’re crushing it: Haters gonna hate. Is it fair that she’s hobnobbing with the Obamas while equally deserving people go unnamed? Of course not. If life were fair, nerdy teenage girls wouldn’t be getting shot in the face.
TITLE: I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban
AUTHOR: Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
PAGES: 352 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: Daughter of Destiny meets Lean In
FIRST LINE: “I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.”