Because I Am Malala is a memoir— a work of nonfiction—it doesn’t contain many symbols. Malala’s goal is to tell us, plainly and straightforwardly, where she comes from and what she plans to do with her future. Nevertheless, the burqa—the female veil, a required garb in many parts of the Muslim world—functions on a symbolic as well as a literal level in the book. Malala notes that as a child, she finds wearing a burqa fun, since doing so involves “dressing up.” But as she grows older, Malala begins to see the burqa as an impediment to women’s rights. All around her, she sees women who are forbidden from educating themselves or opening themselves to new experiences. One of the most poignant examples of this phenomenon comes in the form of Malala’s aunt, Babo—a woman who has lived in a large coastal city for her entire life, but who has always been forbidden to travel to see the ocean. As Malala sees it, the burqa is a symbol of women’s cultural inferiority in Pakistan: they are covered from view, and taught to be ashamed of their identities. As a result, women are restricted in their ability to express themselves freely, travel where they want to travel, and, most importantly of all, seek an education. On the day that Malala is shot, her would-be assassin has no trouble identifying her, as she is the only girl on the bus with her face uncovered. Without her burqa, Malala is the only one who can “see” the world clearly, but also, tragically, the only one who can be seen.
While the Taliban criticize and ultimately try to kill Malala for “defaming Islam,” Malala insists that there’s nothing sacrilegious about a Muslim refusing to wear a burqa. Encouraged by her father, Malala studies the Quran herself and derives great inspiration and comfort from its verses. In the end, the burqa may be a symbol of the repression forced upon women in the largely Muslim society of Pakistan, but this doesn’t mean that Malala’s refusal to wear a burqa symbolizes her rejection of Islam. On the contrary, Malala’s bare face (shown on the cover of I Am Malala) symbolizes her refusal to submit to sexism and repression: she will educate and empower herself, studying the Quran and other books.