I Am Malala

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Women’s Rights Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Women’s Rights Theme Icon
The Power of Education Theme Icon
Islam and Its Interpretations Theme Icon
Goodness Theme Icon
Fame, Power, and the Importance of Role Models Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in I Am Malala, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women’s Rights Theme Icon

Perhaps the central theme of I Am Malala—even more important than the power of education—is the theme of women’s rights. Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who narrates the book, is passionate about the equality of the sexes, and often quotes the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, regarding this issue: “No struggle can succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.”

Women have had a complex role in Pakistani history. Malala is a Pashtun, a tribe that traditionally confines women to the domestic world, and even “trades” women as if they’re objects. And yet the greatest idol of the Pashtuns is Malala’s namesake, Malalai, the courageous young woman who led the Pashtuns to victory against the British Empire (at the time the most powerful force on the planet). Since the founding of Pakistan following World War II, women have continued to play a conflicted role in their region’s history. Evidently, Mohammed Ali Jinnah wanted women to play an active role in politics (“side by side” with men), and in some ways, they have—Benazir Bhutto rose to lead Pakistan in the late 1990s, as the first female head of state in the Muslim world. And yet in many ways women are still treated as inferior to men. They’re informally discouraged from pursuing an education (for example, Malala’s mother, Tor Pekai, stopped going to school when she was only 6 years old), they’re granted fewer rights in court, etc.

Malala grows up at a time when women’s rights are in jeopardy in Pakistan. Following the events of September 11, 2001, the Taliban, a radical fundamentalist terrorist group, become prominent in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Despite the government’s lackluster attempts to control the situation, the Taliban use violence and intimidation to enforce their ideology, according to which it is God’s will that women hide their faces in public by wearing a burqa (a kind of veil), and refrain from attending schools. From an early age, Malala is capable of seeing the Taliban for what they are: disturbed men who, in a time of global instability, take out their anger, fear, and aggression on women.

In spite of the growing crisis of women’s rights in her country, Malala grows up knowing the value of strong, educated women. This is partly because of the role models she’s surrounded by. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is a charismatic, educated man who has believed in the importance of equality between the sexes for the better part of his life. Ziauddin uses his talent to run a chain of schools that offer good, affordable education for women as well as men, and also uses his literary training to pen popular articles arguing for the importance of women’s rights. Ziauddin teaches Malala to respect women, and gives her books that teach her lessons about the historical importance of women (even Malala’s name is a “lesson” of this kind).

As Malala grows up, her passion for women’s rights strengthens. She begins making radio broadcasts and writing articles of her own, in which she argues for equal rights and universal education. When she visits Islamabad as a teenager, she sees a proud, thriving city full of women with careers and equal rights. Women’s rights, she realizes, aren’t just important because they’re morally correct—they’re important because, just as Jinnah said, they’re valuable: they contribute to the good of the city and to the good of the country.

In the end, Malala’s enthusiasm for women’s rights proves too powerful for the Taliban to fight. Though they send a soldier to assassinate Malala, the assassination attempt fails. Moreover, Malala continues to denounce the Taliban and support feminism (though she doesn’t call it this) even after she nearly dies—and her near-martyrdom gives her a global platform for her views.

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Women’s Rights Quotes in I Am Malala

Below you will find the important quotes in I Am Malala related to the theme of Women’s Rights.
Chapter 1 Quotes

For most Pashtuns it’s a gloomy day when a daughter is born.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

From the beginning, Malala makes it clear that women in Pakistan are usually treated as second-class citizens. When a baby is born in the Pashtun community, Malala explains, it's considered bad luck if it's a woman.

As Malala goes on to explain, the Pashtuns are an old, proud tribe of people, many of whom live within the country of Pakistan's border. The Pashtuns are often warlike and violent, meaning that women don't always have a natural "place" in society--since fighting is considered a high virtue, women, with their weaker bodies, are considered less "virtuous" than men. In short, by many Western standards, the Pashtuns would qualify as a profoundly sexist culture.

What's especially unfair about the Pashtun take on women, Malala makes clear, is that women are judged and demeaned before they're even aware that they are women--i.e., from the moment they're born. As a young, educated woman, Malala tries to reverse the sexism of her society by showing that women are capable of the same achievement and success as men.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

School wasn’t the only thing my aunts missed out on. In the morning when my father was given a bowl of cream with his tea, his sisters were given only tea. If there were eggs, they would only be for the boys. When a chicken was slaughtered for dinner, the girls would get the wings and the neck while the luscious breast meat was enjoyed by my father, his brother, and my grandfather. “From early on I could feel I was different from my sisters,” my father says.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Ziauddin Yousafzai (speaker), Rohul Amin
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Malala gives details about how women are separated from men from an early age: they're even fed differently. Young boys, who supposedly need the extra nutrition to grow into strong, proud warriors for the Pashtun tribe, are given the juiciest, most delicious chicken meat, while young girls are fed the leftovers--wings and neck meat.

As the quotation makes very clear, there's nothing more intuitive for a child than eating. Therefore, for boys and girls to be fed different cuts of the chicken is a surprisingly powerful way to teach them that they're different. Over the course of years and years, boys are taught that they "deserve" better than women, with the result that they grow into men who've embraced the sexist ideas on which they were raised.

Under Zia’s regime life for women in Pakistan became much more restricted. Jinnah said, “No struggle can succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.”

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Mohammed Ali Jinnah (speaker), General Zia ul-Haq
Page Number: 30-31
Explanation and Analysis:

Malala gives a brief account of Pakistani history since World War Two. In the middle of the 20th century, Pakistan was controlled by Muhammed Ali Jinnah, an educated, popular leader who was notable in that he supported equal rights for women. As Malala explains, Jinnah wanted women to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men--he wanted them to be able to vote, work the same jobs as men, enjoy the same rights in court, etc.

Following Jinnah's death, however, Pakistan fell under the control of a military dictator, General Zia. Zia reversed many of Pakistan's feminist leanings--where Jinnah wanted equality, Zia wanted to restore the traditional Pakistani arrangement, whereby women largely stayed in the home and didn't hold jobs or appear in court.

In giving such an account of Pakistan's history, Malala aims to show that her country, in spite of some sexist aspects of its history and culture, isn't unprecedentedly sexist. Malala shows that Jinnah--a hugely popular, charismatic leader--was a feminist, too. By paralleling her beliefs with Jinnah, she makes her platform seem more acceptable to a Pakistani audience, while also dispelling some Western prejudices about Pakistan (i.e., that it's "barbaric" to women).

Chapter 7 Quotes

I am proud that our country was created as the world’s first Muslim homeland, but we still don’t agree on what this means. The Quran teaches us sabar—patience—but often it feels that we have forgotten the word and think Islam means women sitting at home in purdah or wearing burqas while men do jihad.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Related Symbols: Burqa
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the memoir, Malala offers her own interpretation of Islam. Malala admits that her interpretation is hardly the only one: there are some Muslims who believe that their religion gives them justification to attack American soldiers and kill American families. But Malala grounds her arguments in specific passages from the Quran, the holy book of the Islamic faith. Here, Malala cites a passage from the Quran in which Muslims are encouraged to practice patience. As Malala interprets the word "patience," Muslims shouldn't resort to violence simply because they want "results" now. There are terrorists who believe that the fact that Pakistan is a largely Muslim country means that they should protect their country from Western influence at all costs--Malala insists that such acts of terrorism violate the Quran's emphasis on patience.

In general, Malala admits that there's some disagreement on what Islam means and what it asks Muslims to do. Her goal in the passage is to show that there's a legitimate, consistent interpretation of Islam that forbids terrorism and violence against others--an argument that, unfortunately, many Islamophobes in the U.S. refuse to believe.

Chapter 9 Quotes

In the beginning Fazlullah was very wise. He introduced himself as an Islamic reformer and an interpreter of the Quran. My mother is very devout, and to start with she liked Fazlullah. He used his station to encourage people to adopt good habits and abandon practices he said were bad.

Related Characters: Malauna Fazlullah
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Malala describes an important Taliban leader, Malauna Fazlullah. Fazlullah first became prominent in the early 2000s. He painted himself as a moderate: instead of advocating for women wearing burqas and jihadists killing American soldiers, he talked about smaller, more reasonable-sounding reforms. Only later did Fazlullah begin saying what was really on his mind.

As Malala suggests, Fazlullah was a cynical manipulator. He knew that what he believed would come across as barbaric to many, so he tried to slowly "adjust" people to his point of view little by little. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water, Fazlullah's Muslim listeners slowly became more and more used to radical points of view. Malala implies that the interpretation of Islam advocated by the Taliban (as Fazlullah) is irrational and counterintuitive--people have to be "tricked" into believing it. By contrast, Malala argues that her own pacifist interpretation of Islam is reasonable and based on education and knowledge.

Chapter 13 Quotes

The Taliban’s deadline was drawing closer: girls had to stop going to school. How could they stop more than 50,000 girls from going to school in the twenty-first century? I kept hoping something would happen and the schools would remain open. But finally the deadline was upon us.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

As the first decade of the 2000s comes to an end, the Taliban issue a threat: all girls must stop going to school or be punished for their supposed defiance of Islamic law. On some level, Malala wants to believe that the girls of her country will defy the Taliban's pompous threat--there are more than 50,000 of them, after all. But then again, Malala knows the truth: the Taliban is powerful and intimidating enough that the young women of Pakistan will withdraw from their schools to save their own lives.

In one way, the fact that the Taliban succeed in banning women from school is a massive victory for their ideology. The Taliban maintain that good Muslim women must be docile and subservient to men: they should spend most of their time in the home, and certainly not bother with education. By threatening the young women of their country, the Taliban have "succeeded" in enacting their dubious interpretation of the religion. But on another level, the Taliban's threat is a sign of weakness. The Taliban, we can tell, are genuinely scared of women: like Muhammed Ali Jinnah, they recognize that there's nothing more powerful than educated, ambitious women. That the Taliban, with all their guns and bombs, could be so intimidated by the prospect of girls learning math shows how weak they really are, and how bankrupt their interpretation of Islam ultimately is.

Chapter 14 Quotes

A few days later the video was everywhere. A woman filmmaker in Islamabad got hold of it and it was shown on Pakistan TV over and over, and then around the world. People were rightly outraged, but this reaction seemed odd to us as it showed they had no idea of the awful things going on in our valley. I wish their outrage extended to the Taliban’s banning of girls’ education.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

In the city of Islamabad, a woman is savagely beaten for "daring" to buy makeup from a store, and someone manages to capture the horrific incident on video. The video quickly becomes a sensation: for some, proof that Pakistan has become a violent, repressive country that doesn't tolerate freedom for women.

Malala's reaction to the notoriety of the video is interesting, both for what she says and what she leaves unsaid. Malala insists that the video, while important, distracts from an equally important human rights issue: the fact that women are deprived of their right to education. Put another way, Malala finds it strange that the international community is shocked by women being attacked, but curiously unconcerned when women are denied the right to go to school--it would seem that the rest of the world doesn't value education for women as strongly as Malala would have hoped.

It's also possible that Malala is irritated with the video because it depicts women as victims. While it's important to draw attention to the atrocities committed against women, Malala wants to prove to the world that women are strong and self-sufficient: that they can make speeches, conduct interviews, and advocate for human rights. By showing women in pain and danger, the video doesn't go far enough--it encourages other countries to think of women as passive victims who need to be protected, but not necessarily empowered.

Chapter 16 Quotes

It seemed like everyone knew I had written the BBC diary. Some thought my father had done it for me but Madam Maryam, our principal, told them, “No. Malala is not just a good speaker but also a good writer.”

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Madam Maryam (speaker), Ziauddin Yousafzai
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we see Malala beginning to take on the role of a spokesperson--a well-known, even famous, figure, whose job is to advocate for her point of view to an audience of millions. Malala, encouraged by her father's friend at the BBC, writes a diary in which she describes what it's like to be a young woman in Pakistan. Although Malala doesn't sign her name to the diaries, everyone guesses that she wrote them, based on the experiences she documents. Some people even believe that Malala's father wrote the diaries--notably, Malala herself doesn't insist that she wrote them; her principal does so instead.

At this point in the memoir, Malala is a little reluctant being the center of attention. She doesn't sign her name to the diaries, and when people guess that she wrote them, she doesn't seem to acknowledge that she's the author. Malala is dealing with big, international issues, but she's also learning how to be famous--a major responsibility for anyone, let alone a teenager.

Islamabad was totally different from Swat. It was as different for us as Islamabad is to New York. Shiza introduced us to women who were lawyers and doctors and also activists, which showed us that women could do important jobs yet still keep their culture and traditions. We saw women in the streets without purdah, their heads completely uncovered. I stopped wearing my shawl over my head in some of the meetings, thinking I had become a modern girl.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section of the memoir, Malala travels to the city of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. Islamabad is by far the largest city Malala has ever seen—it’s also one of the most thoroughly “Westernized.” Women in Islamabad seem confident and proud—a far cry from the submissive, docile ideal Malala sees in her own community. The sight of an entire city of empowered, educated women confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that educating both sexes is not—as the Taliban continue to claim—a death-knell for society; on the contrary, it’s one of the best ways for society to grow.

Malala’s experiences in Islamabad also demonstrate the importance of role models. Malala is inspired by the women she meets in the city, and aspires to be more like them in her own life—hence her decision to shed her veil. By the same token, Malala tries to be a role model for women around the world, acting brave in order to inspire other people to follow her distinguished example.

Chapter 18 Quotes

Aunt Najma was in tears. She had never seen the sea before.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Aunt Najma
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Malala and her family travel to Karachi, a coastal city they’ve never seen before. Astoundingly, Malala’s Aunt Najma has never been to a coastal town before—in fact, she’s never seen the sea at all. In no small part, Najma has never seen the sea because, as a woman, she’s never had the freedom to travel anywhere on her own. Her emotional reaction to the sight of the sea suggests the pent-up frustration in millions of women who have been deprived of their right to travel, learn about the world, etc. In a symbolic sense, Malala is trying to use her speeches and interviews to introduce women to “the sea”—in other words, to show them the vastness of the world’s knowledge, of which they’ve been deprived for too long.

Chapter 19 Quotes

“Go and ask the manager of the White Palace Hotel and he will tell you what these girls did…”
He put down the paper. “It has no signature. Anonymous.”

Related Characters: Ziauddin Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

Malala begins to become a more public figure—she writes editorials in her own name instead of using a pseudonym, and appears across the Middle East to speak out in favor of women’s rights and the right to education. At the same time, Malala begins to attract widespread criticism for her supposed heresy—the more public she becomes, the more hated she becomes, too. In this quotation, an anonymous critic implies that Malala and the women who follow her are somehow sinful, and therefore their views are discredited. Without ever explaining what, exactly, Malala “did,” he creates the impression that she had sex or betrayed her Islamic faith. As Malala makes clear, the anonymous critic is just grasping at straws—he makes suggestions because he knows perfectly well that Malala has done nothing wrong. (And yet it's these vague suspicions that are most effective in attempting to discredit Malala, rather than direct accusations that could be easily refuted.)

The passage draws a clear contrast between Malala’s brave, lucid speeches on behalf of her cause and the anonymous critic’s vague, cowardly attacks on her character. Malala’s enemies are cowards, not even brave enough to admit their own names—their anonymity is a sign that Malala is beginning to gain the upper hand, while her opponents are beginning to cower and hide from public view.

Chapter 23 Quotes

“Too many people in the Muslim world can’t believe a Muslim can do such a thing,” she said. “My mother, for example, would say they can’t be Muslims. Some people call themselves Muslims but their actions are not Islamic.” We talked about how things happen for different reasons, this happened to me, and how education for females not just males is one of our Islamic rights. I was speaking up for my rights as a Muslim woman to be able to go to school.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Dr. Fiona Reynolds (speaker)
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

In the hospital in England, Malala forms a fast friendship with her doctor, Fiona Reynolds. The two of them discuss Malala’s crusade for human rights and women’s rights, and Fiona is greatly impressed. Here, Fiona and Malala talk about the way Muslims are perceived. Many in the Muslim world, Malala explains, believe that no true Muslim can be in favor of equal rights for men and women, as Malala is. But Malala insists that the truest Muslims are those who celebrate peace, tolerance, and equality.

Malala’s conversation with Fiona reflects her growing presence on the international stage. For most of the novel, Malala was arguing for women’s rights within her own country. Here, she continues to stand up for what she believes in, but her audience is much greater. Since many of her greatest supporters live in the Western world, Malala changes the focus of her project somewhat--she’s not just fighting for education anymore. By talking about Islam with Western people like Fiona, she’s also acting as an ambassador for Islam itself—a religion that too many people in the Western world regard as violent and intolerant.