As a child, Malala gained a reputation for being highly intelligent in her classes. She participated in almost every student activity—sports, theater, and music. One year, a new student named Malka e-Noor appeared in her class, and quickly began doing better than Malala on her exams. Malala was at first shocked that anyone could upstage her. Also around this time, Malala’s family moved to a different house, and she befriended a girl in her new neighborhood named Safina. One day, Malala discovered that her toy telephone had gone missing, and she suspected Safina of stealing it. In response, Malala stole Safina’s jewelry, and then quickly developed a bad habit of stealing from others.
As we read I Am Malala, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that Malala is only a young girl—indeed, she’s a small child for many chapters. Malala is apparently mature from a young age, and she also doesn’t linger on the “immature” details of her life. One exception to this rule arrives at the beginning of this chapter. It’s almost refreshing, after all the heady information in the previous chapters, to see Malala being a kid and having flaws of her own.
One day, a few months after Malala developed her habit of stealing, her cousins confronted her. They explained that they knew about her misdeeds, and couldn’t believe that she was a thief. Ever since this unpleasant confrontation, Malala has refused to lie or steal. To this day, she claims, she feels guilty for stealing as a child, and prays to God for forgiveness. Malala’s guilt makes her question Pashtun custom. The Pashtuns believe that every mistake must be corrected with a punishment, just as every good deed must be reciprocated with an equally good one. Malala has always been skeptical of this idea—she thinks it leads to an endless cycle of misdeed and revenge. It’s better to learn to forgive others, she concludes.
This is one of the most important sections in the entire book. It’s basically a “creation myth” in which it’s explained how Malala becomes the “living saint” she’s sometimes said to be. The implication of Malala’s guilt and penitence is that sin is its own punishment—and thus the Pashtun custom of harshly punishing every crime is outdated and actively harmful.
One of Malala’s important influences, she explains, was the philosopher Khan Abdul Ghaffer Khan, whom she read from an early age. Khan, a disciple of Gandhi, believed that nonviolence was the only moral way to live one’s life. Khan was also skeptical of the value of revenge—a skepticism that Malala shares.
Clearly Malala is narrating the book as a young girl, but she’s also been reading Khan for many years. We wonder when Malala first picked up one of Khan’s books—was she 15? 12? 9? That Malala doesn’t give us many of these details makes her seem even more preternaturally sophisticated and mature.
As Malala grew up, Pakistan entered a period of political instability. The country alternated between electing Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. Then General Pervez Musharraf staged a military coup and seized power. In all, he spent 11 years as the dictator of Pakistan, despite repeatedly promising to step down “very soon.” During this era, a succession of DCs—deputy commissioners—arrived in Swat in a supposed effort to bring prosperity to the region. None of these DCs succeeded—indeed, they were more interested in lining their own pockets and stealing Swati wealth.
It’s especially jarring to jump from Malala’s moral epiphany to the moral degradation of Pakistan in Malala’s early life. Malala has just established that the old doctrine of quid pro quo, an eye for an eye, is redundant and harmful. Here, then, we see this doctrine at its worst: the corrupt bureaucrats and government officials under Musharraf are only interested in “favors,” in the quid pro quo of bribery and extortion. All of Pakistan suffers as a result.
Malala, determined to be a moral person, spent much of her childhood running errands for other people. Malala looked up to an older girl at school, whose name was Fatima. Fatima made speeches before hundreds of onlookers, usually in English—English, Malala notes, was the language of prestige and wisdom among Pakistani people. Eager to impress her father, Malala decided to enter a public speaking competition, just as her father had done when he was a young man. The topic for the competition was “Honesty is the best policy.” Malala made a speech written by her father, as was the custom. When she made her speech before a large audience, she was extremely nervous. At the end of the competition she came in second, and her best friend Moniba won. Malala wasn’t hurt by her loss, as she remembered the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Teach him how to gracefully lose.” She resolved to put all her effort into her speeches in the future, and to speak “from the heart.”
As Malala looks back on the major influences in her life—her father, her mother, Benazir Bhutto, Fatima—we begin to notice something. There’s no reason why Malala had to imitate Fatima by making speeches of her own—she could have given up and never made a speech again. Similarly, Malala could have seen her father’s eloquence and charisma as unattainable, and thus been discouraged in developing her own charisma. In other words, the notion of a “role model” suggests that Malala is a product of her environment, someone responding to the influence of people around her. But I Am Malala also suggests that people have control over who their role models are, and what kind of influence they exert. Malala isn’t simply influenced by the people around her—she chooses to be influenced by them, and then takes actions of her own.