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.
Women’s Rights ThemeTracker
Women’s Rights Quotes in I Am Malala
For most Pashtuns it’s a gloomy day when a daughter is born.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.