Critics have compared “I Am Malala” to the iconic historical autobiography “Anne Frank’s Diary”. The former is an autobiography of a young girl growing up in a Pakistani village as the Taliban seizes control. So pertinent to this era, Malala’s story sheds light on a perspective that no major media agency could ever hope to. It is an invaluable reminder that the spread of Islamic radicalization affects more than just global superpowers; it is about more than just the cost of oil, international politics, or the growing threat of terrorism against Westerners. It is about the imposition of radical and repressive systems on an otherwise peaceful way of life for millions of ordinary people in the countries throughout which it spreads.
Using a dedicated radio station, which soon became the only one allowed, the Talibs (religious men) quickly had the entire Swat valley abiding by their every word. They encouraged the burning of CD’s, DVD’s and TV’s and the shops that sold them were shut down in an attempt to isolate the public from knowledge and to deter Western influence. Citizens were either publically praised or shamed for following or ignoring the teachings of the local on-air Mullah. Vaccinations were banned and during Ramadan, the Taliban shutoff the electricity and clean water source, leaving many sick and dead from cholera. They seized on opportunities like the devastating earthquake of October 2005 in Pakistan to take the newly orphaned and homeless children into madrasas (religious schools) where they trained them in military jihadism. Curfews were established and strict rules of purdah were imposed.
It is women who were subject to the strictest interpretation of purdah. Purdah, according to the Oxford Dictionaries, means “the practice in certain Muslim or Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain” and/or “a state of seclusion or secrecy”. It originated from early 19th century Perdu and the Persian word “parda” meaning veil or curtain. The most common form of purdah outside of the home is a garment known as a burqa, which may or may not include a yashnak, a veil that conceals the face where the eyes may or may not be exposed. One day in the market Malala’s mother and cousin were stopped by a Talib. “ ‘If I see you wearing a scarf but no burqa I will beat you,’ he said. My mother is not easily scared and remained composed. ‘Yes, OK. We will wear burqas in the future,’ she told him. My mother always covers her head, but the burqa is not part of our Pashtun tradition.” At first women were required to leave the house only when accompanied by a male family member, but later were banned from the market entirely and told that they should not leave the home except in an emergency.
“Then MMA activists launched attacks on cinemas and tore down billboards with pictures of women or blackened them out with paint. They even snatched female mannequins from clothing shops. They harassed men wearing western-style shirts instead of the traditional shalwar kamiz and insisted that women cover their heads. It was as though they wanted to remove all traces of womankind from public life.”
Public whippings were witnessed for the first time. Bodies began to appear in the “bloody” square each morning, for everyone to see on their way to work. The greatest impositions were placed on the most vulnerable – women and girls. “One day I saw my father and his friends watching a video on his phone. It was a shocking scene. A teenage girl wearing a black burqa and red trousers was lying face down on the ground and being flogged in broad daylight by a bearded man in a black turban. ‘Please stop it! She begged in Pashto between screams and whimpers as each blow was delivered. ‘In the name of Allah, I am dying!’ You could hear the Taliban shouting, ‘Hold her down. Hold her hands down.’…They hit her thirty-four times. A crowd had gathered but did nothing. One of the woman’s relatives even volunteered to hold her down.’ “ The local Khan confirmed that the film was genuine. “She came out of her house with a man who was not her husband, so we had to punish her,’ he said, ‘Some boundaries cannot be crossed.’ “
Malala had been reading the Quran, creating a direct translation from Arabic to her native tongue of Urdu, allowing her to “know” the Quran and it’s teachings first-hand. However, the majority of Pakistani followers of Islam cannot speak of read Arabic, and so were ignorant to the misinterpretations being broadcast by the local Mullah.
As the Taliban further imposed their agenda, hundreds of schools were burned throughout the country. Living in constant fear that theirs would be next, Malala’s father, Ziauddin, was told to close down his school, as it was “haram” (sinful). One day seven men came to their house and declared ‘I am representing good Muslims and we all think your girls school is haram and a blasphemy. You should close it. Girls should not be going to school,’ he continued. ‘A young girl is so sacred that she should be in purdah, and so private that there is no lady’s name in the Quran, as God doesn’t want her to be named.’ “ After shooting down his argument with a prime example of a woman in the Quran, Ziauddin refused to succumb to the pressure, and received frequent death threats as a result. However, it was Malala who would eventually be targeted and shot.
Having a keen passion for learning, the encouragement of her father, a solid comprehension of the Quran, and the understanding of the dangers of the misguided interpretations and teachings of the Taliban, Malala became an out-spoken advocate for the education of girls, for all children. She recognized the irony that Talibs believed that girls should be educated by women and treated by women doctors, but that if they weren’t allowed to go to school, then they would never be able to fill those positions.
It is precisely because Malala’s account of life under Islamic radicalism is not unique, similar to Anne Frank's account under Nazi rule, that it is so important. Of course, Malala's reaction was nothing short of heroic, which makes her an exceptional role model for social consciousness across the globe. And while she is most noted for advocating education for girls, particularly in developing countries, it is not just that girls should have a right to education, everyone should have a right to education. Advocating education as a basic humanitarian right is Malala’s solution to establishing worldwide peace. The act of denying education to certain groups of people in order to repress them is nothing new in tactics of war. Keeping people ignorant so that they are unable to make educated decisions about their own lives, that of their family’s and that of their country’s, enables others control over the fate of others. Malala, through her message, is lifting that veil of ignorance.
 Yousafzai, Malala. “I Am Malala” (New York: Bay Back Books, 2013), pg. 169
 Yousafzai, pg. 97.
 Yousafzai, pg. 170-71.
 Yousafzai, pg. 94.
Holly Marie Armishaw
Based in Vancouver, Canada, Holly Marie Armishaw is a contemporary artist, art writer, francophile, and world traveler. Through rigorous exploration of inspiration from international sources of art and culture, she infuses her insights with a critical eye as she discusses global trends. Both her art and writing are informed by attending a continuous array of art exhibitions, lectures, fairs and biennales, both at home and abroad.