The Taliban came to Swat Valley when Malala was ten years old. Their leader was Maulana Fazlullah, who had begun his takeover through the radio by broadcasting his plans as an Islamic reformer, instructing people to give up certain behaviors if they wanted to be good Muslims. He sounded charismatic and rational and many people supported him; Malala's father, however, did not. One of the things Fazlullah called for was the removal of all CDs, DVDs, and televisions from homes, but Malala's family secretly kept theirs. Fazlullah directed many of his broadcasts specifically at women, insisting that they must remain in the home according to the Quran, but Malala knew that the holy book did not really say that.
One of the biggest things that the rising Taliban advocated against was girls' education. One of Malala's school's Urdu teachers, Nawab Ali, refused to teach the girls anymore because Fazlullah forbade it. Whenever women would leave the house and go to the market, the Taliban would shout at them to go home until they did. Fazlullah also began holding a local court called a shura, which resulted in barbaric punishments like public whippings for mundane crimes. The Taliban stopped polio vaccinations, spoke against the Americans, and patrolled the streets for people who did not follow their demands. After his radio station had been on the air for over a year, Fazlullah started to get more aggressive, pushing for the human "sacrifices" of politicians and political activists who tried to stand against him. Slowly, Malala's father was encouraged to speak out against this budding regime, and he became a public figure in the process.
The Taliban began to eliminate all of the things Malala loved about Swat Valley: their music, their history, even their ancient Buddha statues that they so loved, claiming that these things were sinful. They blew up the massive twenty-three foot tall Jehanabad Buddha carving with dynamite. Malala felt that the Taliban saw people as nothing more than little dolls to control. They even pushed for women to wear burqas, which kept a woman's body entirely covered up—even her face. Then, the Taliban began to storm houses and attack Swat policemen, and started taking over administration in all the villages of Swat.
Even more frighteningly, the Taliban reached the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, and a group of women they called the ‘Burqa Brigade’ went around attacking CD and DVD shops and bazaars in the center of the city. The Musharraf government did not know how to handle this militant takeover of their capital. The Taliban seized the Red Mosque, an important site in Islamabad, in a battle called Operation Silence. Following this, the Taliban declared war on the Pakistani government.
In an attempt to instate a politician popular enough to help fight against the Taliban, the famous female prime minister Benazir Bhutto returned from exile to share power with Musharraf. Malala was particularly excited to see Benazir return, as she was a role model for her in politics and democracy. But the Taliban bombed the bus taking Benazir from her plane through the city of Karachi, not killing her, but killing 150 other people.
Finally Musharraf sent troops to Swat to combat the Taliban, and fighting happened throughout the valley's villages. The army was unable to drive the Taliban away, and different militant leaders throughout northwest Pakistan united to officially form the Pakistan Taliban. When Benazir Bhutto was making a speech, a suicide bomber blew himself up and shot her. They later learned that she had died; Malala and many others felt that if Benazir Bhutto could die, then no one was safe.
Throughout these dark days, school kept Malala moving forward. She moved up to high school with her classmates, overseen by Madam Maryam, their kind school principal. Their class liked to be known as the clever girls, and Malala was able to keep her position at the top of class, though she had fierce competition from Malka-e-Noor. Some of the girls began to drop out of school as the threat worsened, and the Taliban began blowing up girls' schools. Malala's father constantly talked to her about the need for courage in their efforts to get rid of the Taliban.
Malala's father was chosen as a spokesperson for an assembly designed to challenge Fazlullah, because he was not afraid to speak out and was fluent in Pashto, Urdu, and English. Malala often went with him when he met up with his fellow activists, and they began to see her as a daughter to all of them. This group and others who were not afraid did many radio interviews with local and international broadcasters, encouraging others to resist Talibanization. Malala herself even began to give interviews, and felt empowered by them. The school bombings continued, getting worse and worse. Malala's school took in some of the girls from the schools that had been bombed.
Because it was safer in Mingora than in the smaller villages, many of Malala's family members came to live with them, and their house got crowded. At the end of 2008, the Taliban announced that all girls' schools would close, but Malala was determined never to stop her education.
These chapters are highly political, as the Taliban makes it into Swat Valley for the first time. Fazlullah shows the qualities of an effective leader, using radio as a tactic to appeal to a wide audience and making people feel as though he is speaking directly to them. He also employs fear tactics in his leadership, convincing people that they are disgracing their religion if they do not follow his orders. Fear goes a long way in garnering support, but Malala, well-versed in the Quran and educated enough to form her own opinions, knows that his strict new rules are not truly mandates of Islam, a religion that preaches peace and acceptance. This outlook on Islam remains important into the present-day, and Malala's perspective helps to humanize her religion for foreigners whose only knowledge of Islam comes from stories in the media of terror.
The Taliban claims that they do not want girls to go to school because the Quran disallows it, but Malala and her father recognize the true reasoning behind their ban on girls' education. Militant groups like the Taliban rely on fear to gain followers, and fear is much more effective when paired with ignorance. The Taliban sees education as a threat, because educated people—particularly educated women—are more likely to feel empowered to stand against them.
The Taliban's view of education is juxtaposed with Malala's own view. To her, school is a sanctuary rather than a threat, a place where she can be comfortable and fully herself in the face of new rules that are attempting to hide her away. She feels a sense of power when she studies, and a sense of companionship with the girls learning alongside her. Competition with Malka-e-Noor keeps her motivated, rather than discouraging her. Overall, Malala's school and the girls within it are a shining example of the power that education has to shape a young girl's life, and are also a profound example of the kind of empowerment that the Taliban seeks to prevent.
Although Malala never interacts with her in person, female prime minister Benazir Bhutto has a very important role as a character in this memoir. She is a role model to Malala and other girls who seek to make their nation a better place through political power. She is a symbol of progress and hope for the people of Pakistan, brought back from exile at a time when the country needed her most to restore their faith in their government and their future. By killing her, the Taliban extinguished the most important symbol of inspiration for Malala and so many other Pakistanis, signaling that they would stop at nothing to see the country ruled in accordance with their own principles.
As all this is happening, Malala learns that the most important weapons in fighting this oppressive force are not guns, nor knives, nor bombs. The Pakistani army, using all of these conventional weapons against the Taliban in Swat Valley, is largely ineffective. Instead, the most powerful weapon in fighting Talibanization is speech. Malala's father begins to take on an important role speaking out against the Taliban, and through his example she learns to have the courage to speak out. Words are her weapon, because words can reach a wide international audience and inspire others to do something about the situation. Malala will continue to use words to change the world even after she has left Pakistan—in fact, writing this memoir is one of the ways in which she does so.