A chat with Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala, about fatherhood, the importance of education and breaking the iron bars of patriarchy.

Could you tell us a bit about your own childhood? How did your experiences shape your thinking about equality and education?

I grew up in an area called Shangla, in north-western Pakistan. Shangla is the second or third poorest district in Pakistan, and our family lived in a mud hut in a small village. My family, like all other families, was very patriarchal. I grew up with five sisters and a brother, and the inequality was obvious from an early age. I got cream in my morning tea; my sisters did not. I had proper shoes and good clothes; my sisters did not. I was sent to school; my sisters were not. That, more than anything, crippled their dreams. While I was pursuing my dreams of being a doctor, they were only allowed to dream of becoming wives and mothers. All of them married between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. 

Was there a moment when you started to realise that something was wrong with this way of life?

There were two things that changed me. First was that I suffered some discrimination myself. I’m quite dark in colour and I could see that the fair-skinned students in my class got better treatment from the teachers. Also, I had a stutter, so I was bullied quite badly by the other children. It made me very aware of how people could be marginalised through no fault of their own. 

And then I also saw what was happening with my first cousin. She had been forced into a very unhappy marriage, but she could not get out of it because of the taboo against divorce. I even stood by her side in court, but she had to withdraw her case because the family pressure was so great. I saw the suffering she was going through and I heard all these stories about honour killings, and it made me so angry. After this I became determined to fight for the rights of women like her.

What did it mean to you when you had a daughter of your own?

More than anything, I was just determined that she should have her own identity. I named Malala after Malalai of Maiwand, a legendary fighter in Afghanistan, who was known by her own name. This is a big thing: in patriarchy, women are known only in reference to male members of their family. For example, I never saw my mother’s name on a doctor’s prescription. She was always “mother of Ziauddin” or “wife of Rohul Amin”. I never wanted Malala to be “Ziauddin’s daughter”. How could I have known that one day I would become “Malala’s father”?

What was Malala like as a little girl?

She was such a strong soul from the very beginning. The day she was born I looked into her eyes, already open, and I felt such love and respect. But you could see how difficult things might be for her. She was like a dog to people. My close family members didn’t even congratulate my wife when Malala was born.

But she had this charisma that won people over. The neighbourhood we were living in then grew to love Malala and were always looking out for her. My wife and I had a very clear idea that we wanted to raise her free from the patriarchy, but it was her own force that changed the minds
of those who came close to her.

As a teacher, you’ve been a fierce advocate for girls’ education. Was this a difficult thing to fight for in Pakistan?

It was actually fine, to begin with. We were living in a city called Mingora in the Swat Valley, and things are a lot more progressive there than in places like Shangla. Sending girls to school was quite common and accepted, so even when I started a school where boys and girls were educated together, it wasn’t that far out of the ordinary. 

The problems started around 2005 when the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, started preaching that educating girls was haram, or against Islam. We lived quite close to the border with Afghanistan, and the Taliban began bombing schools that taught girls—they destroyed more than 400 of them. Then, in 2009, the Taliban announced that no girl could go to school, and if she did her parents would be held responsible.  

That was when Malala began speaking up to defend her right to an education. She wrote a blog for the BBC. She appeared in The New York Times, and on every platform she could. She was acutely aware that if she wanted a different future from her aunt, her mother, she needed to be educated. 

When Malala was attacked, as a parent did you feel a sense of responsibility for being the one who had encouraged her activism?

People often ask me this question, but I think they only do because they cannot understand what it would be like to be in our situation. You’re calling from Melbourne? Imagine if tomorrow, God forbid, you were told that no girl in Melbourne will be going to school, that no woman is going to the market, that they are not even allowed to choose what they will wear. Of course you would stand up and fight. I did not ask Malala, I didn’t push her to be a champion for education. She became a champion out of circumstance, but that was never our destination.

I remember how devastated I was on the day Malala was shot. I asked my wife, “What do you think? Could I have done things differently? Could I have stopped her?” But she was very firm. She told me, “You cannot think like this. You and your daughter stood for justice, for peace, for education. You should never feel guilty, you should never repent. The people who attacked her, they are the ones who should feel guilty. They’re the criminals.” Once she said that to me, I never thought about it again.

And then, of course, there was Malala herself. After six, seven months of life-saving surgeries, who could have blamed her for stopping. But she went back, she raised her voice again. She told me that when she was attacked, fear and weakness died, and hope and courage were born. Those were her words. How could I regret that?

You recently returned to Pakistan after more than six years away. What was it like to return? Could you see the glimmers of change?

Our visit to Pakistan was so emotionally exciting, and very challenging in some ways as well. Big changes had definitely occurred. Growing up in Shangla, I never saw men and women gathering together. But we were invited to Islamabad and we met these huge groups of people, both sexes together under the one roof, and that was thrilling to see. They were not practising their purdah (the separation of women) like they did in the past. 

So, things are changing, slowly. But when things change gradually like this, we usually don’t appreciate it. We want a sudden change. But that so rarely happens and when it does it can be a disaster. So I am happy to see things change like this. Men are changing their expectations of women and women are becoming conscious of their right to receive education, to be independent, to be free. We have a long way to go, but it’s a start.

In developed nations, you talk about women trying to break through the glass ceiling. But in these poorer countries we cannot even imagine a glass ceiling. Instead women are fighting every day to break their iron bars. It is a long journey but they will break it, they are breaking it, and we are with them. As a feminist father, I’m with them; as a feminist husband, I’m with them; as a feminist brother, I’m with them.

You’ve already come so far as a family. What do you hope for your children in the future?

To be honest, that depends on them. As a father, my dream was always to make them independent as early as possible. When Malala was seventeen I used to accompany her, but now she travels on her own. She has moved to Oxford, is living in a dormitory, and there are so many good things that are happening in her life. But for both my daughter and my sons, whatever life, love or dreams they have, I will support them. I love them, and they can be what they want.

This article is from Issue 16 of Lunch Lady. You can order the mag online here OR you can download our app here and have digital issues of Lunch Lady on your phone!

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