The book begins, “I come from a country which was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.” The speaker—Malala, but unnamed for the time being—explains that one year ago, in the city of Mingora, Pakistan, she was shot by the Taliban, and then taken to a hospital outside of the country. Malala insists that she’ll return to her home one day. For the time being, however, she lives in Birmingham, England. Malala finds her new home vastly different from Pakistan—it’s far more technologically advanced, but it’s also intimidating and alienating.
Malala is still unnamed at this point, but she is the assumed speaker, as this is her memoir. The opening sentence of the book has the effect of inextricably tying Malala to her country, and we get a sense of her love for Pakistan—even though she’s in a more technologically advanced place (England), she can’t wait to return home. We will learn about many problems in Pakistan, but it’s important to remember that Malala herself never wavers in her love for her homeland.
Malala flashes back to “the day everything changed”: October 9, 2012. On this day, Malala was going to her usual classes at school. She describes the school system in Pakistan. Malala’s father founded the Khushal School before she was born. It offers an education to girls: chemistry, English language, Urdu, biology, etc. Malala notes that most of her classmates wanted to be doctors when they grew up. She adds that none of her classmates could be viewed as “threats” by any stretch of the imagination.
Malala’s clarification that none of the girls in her father’s school were threats is almost redundant, but also forbidding of what’s to come. It should be assumed that the girls aren’t “threats,” but the very mention of the word implies that someone did consider the girls to be threats.
Malala describes the day of October 9 at her school. The day begins at 9, since the students have their yearly exams. Malala’s father wakes her up, speaking to her in Persian. Her mother yells for her to wake up as well, teasingly calling her “Pisho,” or “Cat.” Eventually, Malala gets out of bed and prepares for her day of exams. Her rival at school is Malka e-Noor—as she dresses, Malala thinks to herself that she’s almost always beaten Malka on her exams.
Although we’ve been informed that this day changes everything, it’s not immediately clear what makes it so special. At first it seems perfectly banal: Malala seems like an ordinary teenaged girl, bickering with her family and worrying about exams.
Malala’s school isn’t far from her home, and often she walks there in the mornings. Occasionally she travels to school with her friends in a rickshaw. In recent months, however, she has been taking the bus. Recently, the Malala’s mother has been concerned about her daughter’s safety. The Malala’s father has been an outspoken critic of the Taliban in recent years, and as a result, he’s been getting death threats. Nevertheless, Malala’s parents agree that the Taliban would never attack a girl. Malala often thinks about what would happen to her if a terrorist from the Taliban attacked her. She always concludes that it would be best to ask the terrorist to listen to her, rather than try to fight back.
As casual as Malala seemed in the previous section, it’s now clear that there’s some anxiety and paranoia lurking beneath her “ordinary” life. She fears for her and her family’s safety, to a degree that would be inconceivable to most people reading this summary. But despite the fact that she’s being threatened by the Taliban, Malala doesn’t wish any violence upon them. On the contrary, she seems to believe in forgiveness rather than the old principle of “an eye for an eye.” Because Malala reaches this conclusion before she’s shot, it remains to be seen if she’ll change her mind after the attack.
Since her father has been receiving death threats from the Taliban, Malala has been taking precautions, even though she thinks it unlikely that a Taliban member would attack her. She locks the gate of her house every night, and prays to Allah more frequently than usual. She talks to her friend Moniba about the Taliban. Moniba wants to be a fashion designer, but because it’s difficult for women to find any work other than medicine or education, she tells everyone that she wants to be a doctor. Moniba assures Malala that the Taliban would never attack a “small girl.”
The fact that there are few career opportunities available to women suggests that the country as a whole is experiencing tough times, but it also suggests that women, far more than men, are being restricted from doing as they please. We already knew that they couldn’t go to school safely, but now we see that they also can’t pursue the jobs they want.
Malala runs to her bus. The other girls in her community, all of them wearing headscarves (burqas) to cover their faces, run to catch the bus as well. Malala reports that her memories of the day become hazy at this point. Her last clear memory is of sitting in the bus, next to Moniba, as the bus turns a corner. In her dreams, she explains, she imagines her father being shot along with her. The reality, however, is this: the bus was suddenly stopped, only a few hundred meters from the school. A young, bearded man stopped the bus driver. He claimed to need “information” about some of the children. The bus driver, Usman Bhai Jan, tells the man that he should go to the school to investigate.
We can sense that something important—perhaps even traumatic—is about to happen, as Malala’s lack of memory about the incident suggests trauma or injury. Based on what Malala has previously said about the state of education and security in Pakistan, we can assume that the bearded man climbing aboard the bus is looking to do harm to the children—not, as he claims, looking for information about them.
Malala and Moniba listen as the young man argues with Usman Bhai Jan. Suddenly, a second man, dressed in white, thrusts open the door and climbs onto the bus. He demands to know which girl is Malala. No one speaks. However, the speaker realizes that she is the only girl not wearing her burqa. Without warning, the man raises a gun—a Colt 45, Malala later learns—and shoots Malala three times. One bullet hits her in the eye and shoulder. The second bullet hits her friend Shazia’s hand. The third hits the arm of her friend, Kainat Riaz. Malala—who now explicitly reveals her name—says that the attacker’s hand was shaking when he fired the gun. Malala explains that she will now tell “her story.”
In this shocking scene, we see the scope of the book ahead of us. In response to the bearded man’s rough question, Malala’s book bravely offers an answer: “I am Malala.” We’re also given further insight into Malala’s enormous capacity for empathy and understanding. While others might brand their assassins villains or cowards, Malala seems more interested in understanding what was going through her assassin’s head. She notes that his hands were shaking, suggesting that at the time of the act itself, he’s terrified or ashamed of killing a young girl. The burqa acts as a kind of symbol in the book, especially in this scene. Malala can “see” more clearly than the other girls—because she doesn’t wear a burqa—but this means that she can also be clearly seen, and thus targeted.