Malala is a Pakistani girl who spoke out against the Taliban’s oppressive rule and their ban on the education of girls. She was subsequently shot by the Taliban, but she survived and went on to become an internationally acclaimed human rights and education activist. Malala describes her life in Mingora in the lush Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan. Her family is part of the Yousafzai tribe of the Pashtun people, who are guided by their Pashtunwali code that stresses hospitality and honor. Malala introduces her family: her educated, forward-thinking father Ziauddin, who founded and runs the Khushal School, where Malala is enrolled; her beautiful and pious mother, Toor Pekai; and her younger brothers Khushal and Atal, with whom she sometimes fights. Malala, celebrated by her father despite being a girl in a patriarchal society, was named after a courageous folklore heroine.
Malala provides background about her parents, their love-match marriage, the mountainous area of Shangla where they are from, and the Yousafzai tribe. She offers background about her grandfather and father, including her father’s efforts to overcome a stutter, live up to his cleric scholar father’s expectations, and pursue an education. She highlights her mother’s lack of education and her father’s passionate support of education along with the difficulty he faced when trying to start the Khushal School, where Malala spends much of her time. Malala also details the birth of Pakistan and its Islamization under General Zia. Later, she describes General Musharraf’s takeover of Pakistan’s government.
Malala describes her family’s visit to Shangla, a remote, impoverished area where women’s lives are difficult and very restricted. She then introduces her friends—her best friend and schoolmate Moniba, her academic rival Malka-e-Noor, and her neighbor Safina. She recounts valuable lessons about stealing, the negative results of seeking revenge, and the importance of being a gracious loser. Malala believes in doing good in the world, and her family sets a strong example by sharing whatever they can. Her father, a community leader and activist, encourages Malala to speak up for the importance of education.
As a result of 9/11 and America’s War on Terrorism, mullahs and religious leaders become increasingly powerful in Swat. One day, Malala’s father has a confrontation with a local mullah over girls attending his school and each man’s interpretations of the Quran. Malala provides context by detailing the religious tensions in India and Pakistan and among Muslims. With the devastating Pakistani earthquake in October 2005, Islamic militants gain popularity because they provide rapid and practical relief that the government does not.
The Taliban emerge in Swat under Maulana Fazlullah, referred to as Radio Mullah for his influential radio broadcasts that promote sharia (strict Islamic law) and designate what is haram, or forbidden. Women are told to stay home in purdah (isolation) and are only permitted to go out if they are accompanied by a male relative and wear a burqa. The Taliban patrol the streets, flogging and murdering transgressors and destroying anything they consider anti-Islamic. Malala recounts a violent confrontation between the army and the militants at the Red Mosque in Islamabad. The return of Pakistan’s first female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, offers hope until she is murdered two months later. Terror increases in Swat with the Taliban’s harsh punishments and a bombing campaign that blows up hundreds of schools.
Despite Fazlullah’s order that girls stay home, Malala continues to go to school. Malala and her father participate in interviews during which they speak out about the repressive, violent situation in Swat. Using the pseudonym Gul Makai, Malala writes for a BBC Urdu website about her experience living under Taliban rule, and a New York Times documentary follows her on the day her school is shut down, an event that garners international attention for Malala and the situation in Swat. Fazlullah decides that girls under eleven can return to school, and Malala continues her schooling even though she’s past the age limit.
Malala’s family lives in fear as the army and the Taliban continue to battle, and the situation in Swat worsens. Finally, the residents of Mingora are told to evacuate. Malala’s family members become internally displaced persons along with millions of other Pashtuns. After the army beats back the Taliban, Malala’s family is able to return to Mingora. Despite the devastation and destruction throughout the area, Malala’s family feels grateful that their home and the Khushal School remain intact. But the hardship continues. Extreme monsoons cause more devastation in Pakistan, and the reemerging Taliban once again provide more aid than the government.
Malala explains that the tensions between Pakistan and America heighten after U.S. forces secretly raid Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, Malala gets honored nationally and internationally for her activism. In telling about a trip to Karachi, Malala explains the tumultuous, violent history of her country and the fighting between the Pashtuns and mohajirs (people who emigrated to Pakistan and their descendants) as well as between the Sunnis and Shias of Islam. Wanting to address her country’s many problems and the need to educate its largely illiterate population, Malala decides she will become a politician. Since Malala is so outspoken, the Taliban target her as a Westernizing threat to Islam. Malala’s father, Ziauddin, is accused of offending God by letting his schoolgirls go on a field trip. He is also questioned by Pakistan’s intelligence service. Ziauddin knows he and Malala are at risk, but they decide to stay in Swat.
In October 2012, the Taliban stop Malala’s school bus and shoot Malala and two schoolmates. Malala fights for her life. She needs numerous operations and a lot of rehabilitation to recover. The army hospitals in Pakistan can’t offer the care needed for her survival, however, so Malala is flown to a hospital in Birmingham, England. Her family joins her there after a bureaucratic delay. Malala receives an outpouring of support from the outraged international community, but reactions within Pakistan are divided between pride and the creation of negative conspiracy theories. The Pakistan government sets Malala’s family up for their new life in England. The family misses their life in Pakistan, and Malala hopes to return someday. Meanwhile, Malala happily resumes school and feels more determined than ever to continue her work helping people.