The book's prologue gives an account of the day Malala Yousafzai, a fifteen-year-old girl from Pakistan's Swat Valley, was shot by the Taliban on her way home from school. It was October 9th, 2012, and she was returning from a day of exams with her classmates from the school she attended, which was founded by her father. Suddenly the school bus stopped, and a young man waved it down and swung himself inside it. He asked, "Who is Malala?" When the girls in the bus looked at Malala, he pulled out a gun and shot her in the face. He fired two more bullets as well, and they hit girls alongside her.
Chapter 1 of the book flashes back and tells the story of Malala's birth to a Pashtun family in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan. Despite the fact that a daughter's birth is not usually celebrated, her father was thrilled when she was born and named her after a Pashtun heroine, Malalai of Maiwand, who died in a battle after using her words and bravery to inspire her people to fight and win against the powerful British army.
Malala talks about growing up in Swat, which she considers the most beautiful place in the world. She and her family lived in Mingora, the largest city in Swat. Swat is famous for its mountains and numerous ruins, particularly the Butkara ruins, which are left over from when Buddhists entered the area. When Malala was born her family was very poor, living only off of the small amount of money her father made from the school he had started. Her brother Kushal was born two years after her, and her brother Atal five years after him. Malala finishes the chapter by discussing how the Yousafszai clan came to Pakistan from Afghanistan, and makes it clear that while she is Pakistani, she has always thought of herself as first Swati, then Pashtun, and then Pakistani.
Chapter 2 is about Malala's father, who always had a speaking problem with stuttering over his words. His father, her grandfather Rohul Amin, was a great speaker who had studied in India, and he loved to talk about the politics of Swat and Pakistan. Malala recounts how General Zia took power in Pakistan in 1977 under a campaign for Islamization in the country, which severely restricted the rights of Pakistani women. Under General Zia, Pakistan became an ally of the United States, because both nations opposed the Soviet Union and its invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. encouraged Pakistani men to join the jihad and fight Soviet occupation—Malala's father, a young man at the time, was particularly entranced by the idea of jihad.
Malala's father constantly tried to please her grandfather, though he never felt like he was living up to expectations. One day, despite his speaking issue, he entered a public speaking competition to make his father proud. Malala's grandfather (whom she calls Baba) wrote a speech for him, and he ended up winning first place. His father called him Ziauddin Shaheen—because shaheen means falcon, which flies above all other birds.
Malala's mother, Tor Pekai, was placed in school when she was young, but sold her books for candy after feeling jealousy at her female friends who got to stay at home all day. She only regretted this when meeting Malala's father, a very educated man who sought to start his own school. Around the time when Malala's father went to college, Pakistan experienced a change in power when General Zia died in a mysterious plane crash. Benazir Bhutto, the first female head-of-state in the Islamic world, replaced him.
After college, Malala's father set out to start his own school in Mingora with his friend Mohammad Naeem Khan. Eventually, though, Naeem and Malala's father realized they were not suited to be business partners, so a friend named Hidayatullah took Naeem's place. They struggled with issues like lack of money and flooding, but Malala's father was determined. As he tried to get the school up and running, he married Tor Pekai, and Malala was born in 1997, their first child. Their luck changed after Malala was born, and slowly the Kushal School began to grow, enrolling more students. Malala grew up with her run of the school, leading a happy toddlerhood. Chapter 3 ends with Malala recounting the events of September 11, 2001 (which took place when she was four years old), saying that they changed her valley forever.
In Chapter 4, Malala talks of leaving Mingora to travel to her father's family's small village of Barkana for the Eid holidays. She has fond memories of traveling there in a bus and staying with the extended family, enjoying true Pashtun hospitality. Her cousins thought of her as modern because she was from the city. Pashtunwali, their code of conduct, was especially well enforced in the small villages, and women were even more restricted in their behavior. Malala did not like these restrictions and complained about them to her father, who said that life was even worse for Pashtuns in Afghanistan because of a group called the Taliban. But he always said that Malala was as free as a bird, and he promised to protect her freedom.
Malala Yousafzai begins telling her own personal story with the event that put her on international radar: being deliberately shot by the militant Taliban group that occupied her home for many years. While many people know this about her, they do not know the circumstances that led to this moment, nor the other life experiences that shaped who she is as a person and paved the way for her inspirational resistance against the constraints of her society. Malala is so much more than just the one moment that has come to define her (i.e. her shooting), and so telling her story is an important way to alert the world to the life that lies behind her struggle.
It is essential to understand the general political circumstances surrounding the nation of Pakistan before delving deeply into Malala's detailed descriptions of the changing power in her country, which can easily become overwhelming. Pakistan was once a part of India, which was a British colony at the time. India was partitioned along religious lines after gaining independence in 1947, leaving Pakistan a majority Muslim nation with India primarily Hindu. Malala's particular region of Pakistan, Swat Valley, was originally an autonomous area within the larger nation, but was absorbed by Pakistan officially in 1969. The short, unstable history of the state of Pakistan and Swat Valley is extremely important to Malala's life story, because it paved the way for the oppressive Taliban group that would eventually overtake the valley.
Following the introduction, in which she recounts the moment of the shooting, Malala rewinds not only to the beginning of her own life, but to her parents' origins as well. Malala's parents played an integral role in shaping her into the independent, outspoken girl who today is an international symbol of progress; thus, the circumstances of their upbringing are an important part of understanding her own life story. Malala's father knew the importance of education because he himself was highly educated, and he was able to instill these values in his daughter.
Malala's mother was equally open to progress, marrying for love and moving out of her home village to the uncertainty of the city to support her husband in his attempt to found a school. Because of their efforts, Malala was able to quite literally grow up in a school, which had a profound effect on her. The Yousafzai family exemplifies the importance of parental circumstances in determining the outcomes of children.
Interwoven throughout these first few chapters are Malala's feelings on the type of female oppression encouraged by leaders in their conservative nation. She constantly expresses her discontent at the expectations laid out for someone of her gender: remain at home throughout childhood and adulthood, performing very specific roles, all the while considered less important than men. This oppression would only grow worse as the Taliban made its way into Swat, and Malala's early viewpoints on these issues pave the way for the public stance she will eventually take in favor of education for girls.
But from the moment she is born, Malala's father takes great pains to make sure Malala knows that she is valued, that she can rise above the fate typically projected for women. He does this first by giving her a name that symbolizes the strength of a female heroine, and this name will become her brand as she reaches international fame. Second, and most importantly, he does this by giving her an education, providing her with the tools she needs to empower herself and others around her. Like Malala points out in chapters 3 and 4, he constantly reminded her that she was as free as a bird.
Yes, the political struggles and unstable circumstances surrounding Malala's childhood in Pakistan are important, but Malala's memoir seeks to look beyond this surface level and dig deeper into the lives of the people who surrounded her. Much of Malala's life in Pakistan was about the values that prevailed in the face of political, economic, and personal difficulty. Values like love, family, friendship, and hospitality were extremely central in the lives of the Pashtun people living in Swat Valley, and that Malala and the people she loves were able to hang onto these even through immense hardship is a testament to their resilience.