When Malala was ten years old, the Taliban came to the Swat valley. When she first saw the Taliban, Malala thought they resembled vampires, like the creatures she’d been reading about in the Twilight books. They wore black turbans and had long beards, even by Pakistani standards. The leader of the Taliban in the area was a man named Maulana Fazlullah. At first, Fazlullah claimed to be a “reformer” of the Quran. He encouraged people to give up drugs and cigarettes to improve their health. As time went on, however, he became more extreme in his rhetoric, calling the government officials of Pakistan “infidels” for their alliance with America. He also insisted that women should work all day at home, and he used his radio station to broadcast his beliefs. Fazlullah became enormously popular in Swat—people thought of him as a “Robin Hood” figure, restoring power and dignity to good, common Muslims. Malala and Ziauddin were disturbed by Fazlullah’s popularity.
This opening scene is shocking in the way Malala blends childish details with the harsh realities of the Taliban’s arrival (the mention of Twilight is especially unnerving). Like Ziauddin, Fazlullah is a charismatic and popular speaker and broadcaster, who uses his access to the media to influence a huge number of people. And yet Fazlullah uses his influence to advance his own fundamentalist agenda, rather than to bring freedom and education to the people who listen to him. Fazlullah is also careful to slowly adjust his listeners to his fundamentalist agenda. It’s much easier for people to grow accustomed to gradual changes than radical ones, and so learn to accept even great inhumanities as “normal.”
As Malala grew up, Fazlullah continued to inspire the people in Swat. He called for increasingly severe changes in Swat society: closing down all beauty parlors, banning barbers, and forbidding women from walking outside in the evening. When American health workers arrived in Mingora offering polio vaccines, he encouraged Muslims to refuse their help, arguing that the vaccines were part of an American conspiracy to make Pakistanis infertile. Fazlullah also called for all women to wear their headscarves (burqas) at all times. At his schools, Ziauddin didn’t enforce this rule. His friends encouraged him to speak out against Taliban laws. Ziauddin wrote letters to the newspapers, arguing that the Taliban were misinterpreting the Quran.
Fazlullah’s measures aren’t overtly violent—at least not yet. Yet they’re highly repressive, and send a clear message to women in Pakistan: they’re second-class citizens. This is especially troubling when one considers that Islam, historically speaking, was one of the most egalitarian of the world’s religions, assigning an equal position to women in marriage and property law. Ziauddin’s bravery is clear in this section: though he must recognize that he’s putting himself in danger, he speaks out against the Taliban’s ideology.