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I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban: An International Case of Gender Oppression for the Right to an Education

by Payal D. Cascio - April 26, 2016

Malala Yousafzai is a personality to be reckoned with in the face of modern warfare. This commentary follows her thoughts and deeds in the midst of the Taliban oppression and seeks to analyze her life through her perspective. Her endless strife to fight for the empowerment of women in the war torn region of the Swat Valley of Pakistan is overshadowed by the threatening presence of the Taliban to this day.


Malala Yousafzai is a personality to be reckoned with in the face of modern warfare. She is a young girl who faced the horrid rule and oppression of the Taliban in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, daring to defy their laws and challenge their beliefs. Her fearlessness and determination to move ahead in the face of atrocities and evil has astounded the Western world and drawn attention to her strife. Malala is the face of an urban feminism that cannot be crushed by Muslim terrorists. This review of her biographical account follows her thoughts and deeds in the midst of the Taliban oppression and seeks to analyze her life through her perspective. It takes into account the criticism that this book faced upon its release and also establishes a communication theoretical construct analogy.  She encountered endless strife in Pakistan while empowering women in Pakistan in the war-torn region of the Swat Valley of Pakistan, which is overshadowed by the threatening presence of the Taliban to this day.

I am Malala is Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography, co-written with British journalist Christina Lamb, is about her ongoing journey for secularism and education for girls in the Swat Valley, which is located in the northwestern region of Pakistan. Malala, the main narrator of the book, is a 16-year-old Pakistani activist who spoke fearlessly against the oppressive and unjust rule of the Taliban. This book provides not only a comprehensive account of the thoughts, sights, and sounds of the day when Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban, but also delivers an exhaustive insight into the lives of the Pashtuns (Malala’s tribe of origin) in that region, the origin of her family lineage, and a thorough understanding of her culture, her family values, and her strong bond with her father Ziauddin. The book begins with Malala's drive to school on the day she was shot in the head. "Who is Malala?" asked the young Taliban gunman who stopped the “Khushal” school van. None of the girls answered. But everyone in the valley knew who Malala was, and she was the only one who did not have her face covered. Of the three shots that were fired by the gunman, the first bullet went through Malala’s left eye socket and out under her left shoulder. The other two bullets hit her friends who were sitting next to her on the bus. Malala’s bus driver Usman “bhai” (meaning brother) drove her to the Swat Central hospital as soon as he realized what had happened; from there, she was flown to a military hospital in Peshawar in Pakistan, where delicate surgery had to be performed on her head. Finally, she was flown to Great Britain for further treatment and recovery.

Malala emerged healthy and fully functional after this dreadful ordeal and has gone on to become the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize winner on December 10, 2014, accepting this honor in Oslo, Norway (BBC Asia, 2014). She was named one of TIME magazine's most influential people in 2013, won the European Parliament's Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought, and her autobiography "I Am Malala" was released last year and even edited and republished for younger audiences (BBC Asia, 2014). Despite the numerous awards and recognitions that Malala has received, she continues to write and is still a fervent crusader. Malala now resides and goes to school in the city of Birmingham, U.K., where her father has been offered a job with the Pakistani embassy for three years. But she continues to spread awareness for everything she believes in and remains an activist for promoting education for all children in war-torn regions of the world (BBC Asia, 2014).

Malala also talks about the prejudice against girls in Pakistan and specifically in her region in her book. She mentions the case of a pretty girl named Seema, who was poisoned by her own family for flirting with a boy. She denigrates the use of the burqa, which is worn like a tent from head to toe by the women in Swat Valley and surrounding areas, as an impractical and foolish practice implemented by the Taliban—especially in the hot months of summer. She goes on to denounce the Taliban practice of flogging women for wearing nail polish and banning them from wearing white shoes because they view white as a color reserved for men only (pp. 37–38).


Of the many critical reviews on this book that I have read and examined, most are concerned with the ghostwritten aspect of this book. In ghostwritten books, you are never quite sure whose voice is leading (Ryder, 2015). For instance, in the section where the scale of Pakistan’s shattering earthquake is discussed, the reader is told that the damage “affected 30,000 square kilometers, an area as big as the American state of Connecticut.” This quote is proof of the fact that a foreign correspondent’s voice has taken over, because Malala does not know about the size of the state of Connecticut (Bhutto, 2013).

Exemplifying the appearance of Western argument on Muslim women is the glorified figure of Malala Yusafzai, “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban” in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. The strangely uniplanar portrayal and iconic standing awarded to Malala by the West assumes a belief that originates in patterns developed in Pakistan’s colonial past. She is epitomized as the figure of free speech and antagonism in all major newspaper and magazine in the Western world, and by glorifying her, these media representations also typify a dehumanized and one-sided classic form of Muslim women that supports a particular Western-sponsored account for this tactically located political region.

Similarly, she exemplifies both the underlying assumption of the importance of Western modernity and the extremely politicized depiction of Muslim women as plagued by patriarchal Islam (Brar, 2014). As she says in her book, “Any of the girls in my class could have achieved what I have achieved if they had their parents’ support.” As implied above, Malala may as well remain unnamed when intermingling with these two monumental categories of rationalizing assumptions that support the ideology of “freeing” the third world while also revealing the larger historic trend of Western dominance.  Although this is by no means an attempt to diminish her success of raising global awareness for the very real problem of women’s education in Pakistan, which is extremely commendable, the way in which Malala is portrayed by media is scrutinized, which has serious implications. For example, Marvel Comics has recently embodied the western conception of a modern Muslim feminist, in an all-too-similar female superhero, “Kamala Khan” (Brar, 2014).

The life of Malala as it relates to the theoretical framework of organizational and social change is of great significance. I see a number of points where Malala’s assertion fits within the theoretical constructs of social and organizational change. These constructs can be precisely implemented by the practices that Malala is making an effort to mobilize. Some theories from this discipline bear a strong correlation to the life events and goals of Malala, such as the organization for social change, diffusion theory, and learning organizations theory.


Malala’s efforts can be theoretically matched to the premise of Michael J. Papa, Arvind Singhal, and Wendy H. Papa’s organizing for social change theory. In the Grameen Bank theory or social change, it is also stated in its communicative and organizational practices that the workers are granted loans in groups to help eradicate the cycle of poverty in Bangladeshi villages by offering the women workers small loans to produce and manufacture their own goods. Malala too has dedicated her life to empowering the women of Pakistan with education in order to bring about a macro level social change in the psyche of the women, inducing new and innovative ideas for action from the uneducated and oppressed women of her country. Empowerment is an interactional process; power is drawn and exchanged through an interpersonal process that results from interacting with others that facilitate this process (Papa, Auwal, & Singhal, 1997).

The term “subaltern” is believed to be coined by Marxist scholar Antonio Gramsci, who uses it to refer to people who are powerless and denied entry to organizations of cultural reproduction (Hall, 1986, pp. 18–-21). Hypothesizing (from prison) about how Italian workers may fight Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, Gramsci contended that tyrannical power is attained and maintained not only through physical intimidation, but also through “cultural hegemony” from thoughts and outlooks that are disseminated in schools and, religion. and so on; through them, the oppressed assent to their environment (Hall, 1986). Gramsci concentrated on those among the working class who are not obligated by that cultural hegemony; he called them “organic intellectuals” (Hall, 1986, pp. 20–-21).

Malala’s outspoken defiance towards the Taliban has also earned her many death threats. Given our understanding that any hegemonic discourse appropriates everything it can, the media coverage seems troubling but normal (Ryder, 2015). Even Malala relies on the Western media to spread her message, though she also blames them in certain instances for pushing their values on to the lives of the Islamic people in that region of the world.


In diffusion theory, a novel idea or object is transmitted through certain channels over time among the members of a social system to induce social change. Even the smallest unit of innovation is subject to analysis and scrutiny. The difference between the diffusion and dissemination of information lies in the way the two impart information into a social system.  In diffusion, certain distinct channels are utilized for imparting information upon the target audience. There are control variables in this theoretical model that regulate exactly where and how the information is dispersed. However, in the dissemination of information, there is no way to check how many people or to what extent the information is effective in carrying out its intended purpose. There is no measure to verify the number of people who receive the message. Just as the diffusion model suggests, Malala employed various means of modern technology, internet, and news media sources to publicize her motives and goals. She has spoken at the United Nations and various other channels in order to make her voice heard. This is where we can identify her role in the theoretical framework of diffusion theory. She has and continues to be successful in gaining strength in numbers from her supporters around the world. Any action is not inconsequential; it comes from organizational actors who have positions, skills, obligations, and histories that are primarily found in the relevant groups. Transformation and permanency is recognized through ways in which organizational group members react to old and new institutionalized ideas by means of already existing commitments and interests (Greenwood & Hinings, 1996).


It is hard to ignore Malala’s role as a leader in everything she has accomplished to date. She bears all the traits of a transactional and transformational leader. Her transformational leadership style is complementary to the transactional style of leading. A transactional leader initiates contact with subordinates in an effort to exchange something of value, such as rewards for performance, mutual support, or bilateral disclosure—which in Malala’s case is a vision of a brighter and happier future for the children of her country and a more liberated lifestyle for the women of Pakistan and Swat Valley. She is a transformational leader by raising herself and her followers to a higher level of motivation and morality (Lowe, Kroeck, & Sivasubramaniam, 1996). The goal of a transformational leader is to obtain performance beyond basic expectations of workers has been labelled the “augmentation hypothesis” (Waldman, Bass, & Yammarino, 1990). Her personality is that of a true charismatic leader who has the power to motivate and influence her subjects and followers. Equally important to the role of a leader are effective communication skills, since without them, no goal can be achieved. Malala has so far maximized her potential in being a true spokesperson in promoting the plight of the children of Swat Valley. She has consistently utilized the various channels of mass media and employed every means of communication possible to spread her message.


Malala’s personality, her style of leadership, and her work ethic is admirable. It is her fearlessness and dedication to press on that makes her stand out from the rest. Her battle is ongoing and her efforts are commendable. Malala’s biography is an extensive account of her life and also that of her father’s. She is proud of being a “Swati,” as she mentions in her book, and sees a vision that is bright and hopeful for the people of her country. But when we put everything into context and view the expanse of her fight, she still has a long way to go. This presumption is based on the deeply ingrained radicalism of the people of Pakistan and Muslims in general, which is going to take a long time to change. Their extremist views are rampantly practiced and shared by a majority of the population in these nations. The ones who do differ in their opinions from that of the Taliban are afraid to speak up with the fear of being punished or killed.

Brar (2014) notes that Malala is not a Pakistani protagonist but a Western one who reinforces a certain narrative justification of U.S. control from within the Islamic world. For this reason, she cannot be written into Pakistan’s anti-US/pro-Islamist political culture and nationalism, despite claims that she “belongs to Pakistan.” While Glamour magazine heralds Malala as a “Glamour Woman of the Year” alongside characters like Lady Gaga and Barbra Streisand, the Washington Post describes Malala as one of Nelson Mandela’s “heirs” because she is a “symbol of freedom.” Conversely, Pakistan labeled Malala as “a tool of the West.” In fact, Malala’s book was banned in Pakistani private schools shortly after being released, clearly demonstrating how Malala has become the face of a Western version of this Muslim woman ideal.

Nevertheless, this book is a good account of a fearless girl who has braved against opposition from the worst terror group in the world and continues to courageously fight for what she truly believes in.


BBC Asia. (2014, December 10). Profile: Malala Yousafzai. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-23241937

Bhutto, F. (2013, October 30). I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai - Review. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/30/malala-yousafzai-fatima-bhutto-review

Brar, M. (2014, Fall). The nation and its burka avenger, the ‘other’ and its Malala Yusafzai: The creation of a female Muslim archetype as the site for Pakistani nationalism. Prandium: The Journal of Historical Studies, 3(1), 1–8.

Greenwood, R., & Hinings, C. (1996). Understanding radical organizational change: Bringing together the old and the new institutionalism. Academy Of Management Review, 21(4), 1022–1054.

Hall, S. (1986). Gramsci's relevance for the study of race and ethnicity. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10(5), 5–27.

Lowe, K. B., Kroeck, G. K., & Sivasubramaniam, N. (1996). Effectiveness correlates of transformational and transactional leadership: A meta-analytic review of the MLQ literature. Leadership Quarterly, 7(3), 385–425.

Papa, M. J., Auwal, M. A., & Singhal, A. (1997). Organizing for social change within concertive control systems: Member identification, empowerment, and the masking of discipline. Communication Monographs, 64(3), 219–249.

Ryder, P. (2015). Beyond critique: Global activism and the case of Malala Yousafzai. Literacy in Composition Studies, 3(1), 175–187.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 26, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 20274, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:38:51 AM

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About the Author
  • Payal Cascio
    University of Louisiana, Lafayette
    E-mail Author
    PAYAL D. CASCIO is pursuing a PhD in Educational Leadership at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
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