When Malala was born, she explains, everyone in her village felt sorry for her mother. Malala was born at dawn—in her community, an ominous sign. To make matters worse, Malala was a girl. As she puts it, women in her country are seen as being fit only for making food and birthing more children.
Malala doesn’t always express her outrage, even in describing seemingly outrageous things. She can be surprisingly matter-of-fact about the sexism in her community—and its “ordinariness” makes it all the more sinister.
One of the only people to celebrate Malala’s birth was her father’s cousin, Jehan Sher Khan Yousafzai. He gave Malala a “handsome gift of money.” He also brought with him a large family tree, showing the sons and fathers of Malala’s family. Malala’s father, Ziauddin, had an unusual reaction when his cousin brought the family free. Instead of accepting it as a gift, he took a pen and drew a line to indicate Malala’s birth, even though she was a woman. Ziauddin insisted that Malala was special, and celebrated her birth with coins and fruit—gifts usually reserved for male children.
At times Malala makes large, sweeping statements about the state of sexism, religious extremism, etc., in Pakistan. Yet she’s very careful never to paint Pakistan with too broad a brush—she always recognizes that there are exceptions to the statements she’s making (like Jehan Sher Khan). Ziauddin will be a huge influence on Malala, and we see that he adored her from the start, refusing to treat her any differently from male children.
Malala is named after Malalai, a heroine of Afghanistan. Malala’s ethnic group, the Pashtuns, are divided between two countries, Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The Pashtuns obey a strict moral code of honor, which obligates them to treat all people with honor and respect. The Pashtuns are also a proud, warlike people. Malalai is a heroine to them because in the 1880s, she led the Pashtuns in a successful uprising against the British Empire. Malalai was only a teenager at the time, and she set aside married life to become a general and a warrior. British soldiers killed her, but her troops eventually defeated the British. To this day, monuments to Malalai are built in Afghanistan, and she’s a symbol of the native resistance to foreign aggression.
Malala’s description of her namesake creates a curious tension in the book. It’s clear that Pashtun culture as it exists in the early 21st century is in many ways highly repressive and sexist. Yet at the same time, women have played an unusually large role in Pashtun history, and in fact one stands at the center of its single greatest military victory. Thus it seems self-contradictory that this society should so revere the women of its past while having so little respect for the women of its present. Malalai will be an important historical precedent for Malala’s own heroism.
Malala continues explaining her culture. She lives in Swat Valley, a beautiful place full of fruit trees, rivers, and forests. In the winter, the villagers ski in the nearby mountains. Swat is currently a part of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in Pakistan. Formerly, Swat was its own state, but following Indian independence in 1947, it merged with Pakistan. The people of Swat use the Pakistan currency—the rupee—but nonetheless maintain an unusually large amount of cultural and political autonomy from Pakistan. Most of the people of Swat have never left their valley, even though the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, is only a hundred miles away.
One thing to keep in mind, Malala stresses, is that everyone in Mingora is restricted in his or her movements—not just the women. Indeed, the majority of people in the community haven’t even left Swat. This is also a very beautiful part of the world, and it’s clear that Malala loves her homeland deeply. This then makes it all the more tragic when Swat is beset with violence, oppression, and suffering.
Malala and her family live in the village of Mingora, the largest town in Swat. Swat has been an Islamic town since the 11th century. Prior to this time, however, it was a Buddhist state, and there are still ruins of Buddhist temples in Swat. Malala has grown up surrounded by birds and other animals, enjoying the beauty of the valley and the surrounding Hindu Kush mountains.
Swat is unique from its Pakistani neighbors in many ways. It’s the home of many different religious traditions, including Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim. This religious diversity is a large part of its appeal to Malala from a young age, as she loves exploring the ruins of the temples.
Malala’s family is very poor. Despite founding the first school for girls in Mingora, Malala’s father and his family live in a shack. Nevertheless, Malala’s family frequently entertains visitors, cooking for them and spending time with them. Hospitality, Malala explains, is a crucial part of her culture. Malala’s brother, Khushal, is named after their father’s school, which he attends. Her youngest brother, Atal, is seven years younger than she. Her family is very small by Swati standards. Malala’s father, unlike the vast majority of Swati men, never hits his wife, whose name is Tor Pekai. Malala notes that the people in her community aspire to have paler skin. Malala’s father, for instance, was always ashamed of his dark skin as a child. Only after he married Tor Pekai did he overcome his shame. Tor Pekai and Ziauddin had an unusual marriage, since they married out of love, not social obligation. This is highly rare in Pakistan, Malala notes.
It’s hard to imagine a family in any other place being so committed to hospitality, even when the family itself is in danger of falling into poverty. And yet in many ways, Malala’s family isn’t at all typical of the Pashtun or Pakistani norms. On the contrary, Ziauddin and Tor Pekai married for love—something which may seem familiar to American readers, but is irregular for Pakistanis, as we’re meant to understand. It’s also notable that Ziauddin doesn’t beat his wife or children—he doesn’t assume that he is naturally superior and entitled to violence just because he is a man. Many Pakistani men do feel this way, Malala explains, which doesn’t bode well for the rise of extremism in the coming years.
Malala continues describing her family. Tor Pekai is very religious, and always prays five times a day, as is the Muslim custom. Malala’s father was rarely around when Malala was growing up: Ziauddin was busy writing poetry, organizing literary societies, and taking measures to preserve the environment in the valley. Although he is from an impoverished village, Ziauddin used his intelligence and hard work to become successful. Malala grew up respecting the power of language, largely as a result of her father’s influence.
Malala benefits from strong role models from a very early age. While Ziauddin isn’t often directly present in Malala’s life while she’s growing up, his “presence” as an influence in her life is enormous. He teaches her to respect the environment, literature, and poetry, and to understand the power of words. This will become more important as Malala becomes a public speaker and writer (of this very memoir, among other things).
Malala’s family is descended from the Yousafzai, a noted Pashtun tribe who celebrated combat as well as poetry. The Yousafzai feuded with one another constantly, but in 1917, one Yousafzai warrior managed to impose order on the Swati Valley. His son, Jehanzeb, brought great wealth and prosperity to the Valley. In 1969, the year Malala’s father was born, the Valley firmly united with Pakistan. Malala thinks of herself as Swati first, then Pashtun, then Pakistani.
Malala’s identity thus far has seemed to be based almost entirely on peace, nonviolence, and forgiveness—even of the Taliban who threaten her life. Ironically, she’s descended from a family that celebrates war and conflict as a way of life. And yet the Yousafzais also celebrate poetry, again emphasizing the power of words for Malala.
Growing up, Malala noticed that, as a woman, she was restricted from traveling where she wanted. From an early age, however, Malala decided that she wouldn’t let the sexism of her society stifle her. Her father encouraged her to be “free as a bird.”
Malala seems to be born with a sense of freedom and natural morality, but then also has these traits nurtured and encouraged by her father, who is an excellent role model, it seems.