One year ago Thursday, a young bearded Talib in Pakistan’s Swat Valley boarded a school bus crammed with 20 girls and fired three shots heard ’round the world.
In the 367 days since, Malala Yousafzai, the outspoken peace and education activist, has gone from lying in a hospital bed to addressing the United Nations on July 12, her 16th birthday, to being the leading contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, whose winner was announced Friday.
But as much as the world loves Malala, could world peace actually be better advanced by awarding the prize to her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai?
As the founder of the girls’ school Malala attended, he is an anomaly in his area of Pakistan — a progressive man who understands the value of educating girls. Without her dad, there would be no Malala, the confident, literate, English-speaking activist.
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Instead, she would most likely be lost among the four out of five girls in her region who don’t go to school.
As Adam Ellick, a filmmaker who created a documentary featuring Malala before she became a household name, told Time, “This is a story about a father and a daughter, more than a story about a girl.”
Describing Ziauddin’s education activism, Ellick said, “Her father has a sort of revolutionary commitment to his cause. He is an incredibly unique and complex person.”
But for the status of women to improve, men with Ziauddin’s mindset can’t be unique; they must be commonplace.
The cold, hard reality is that in areas of the world where men tyrannically hold all power, the situation of women and girls will only advance if men voluntarily relax their vise-like grip over women.
This is what Foreign Policy contributor Christian Bayer Tygesen refers to as the “realist perspective on human rights.”
What he wrote about Afghanistan can just as well be applied to Malala’s Swat Valley: “All Afghan girls should get an education, but unless the men ease their repressive dominance, half of the population will never have the opportunity to exercise their human rights.”
We can create rap videos honoring Malala and bestow her with the world’s top prizes, but at the end of the day, it’s often men who execute the kind of change Malala is advocating.
Less than a century ago, American women got the right to vote because a critical mass of men experienced “indigenous preference shifts,” to use Tygesen’s term. And that was in a country where suffragettes could at least freely organize and take to the streets en masse.
Malala’s father himself acknowledges the crucial role that progressive men play in accelerating social change in male-dominated societies.
In remarks in March in London, in which he made an analogy to whites’ support for Martin Luther King’s activism, he said, “In a male-dominated society, change will come and change could be initiated by men. ... The journey which girls can travel in 100 years, if they are accompanied by their male partners — brothers, fathers — it could be just a few years, five years, six years.”
Ziauddin Yousafzai has faced death threats. He has had to sleep away from home to stay alive and protect his family.
Awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize would have sent the message that men in male-dominated societies who swim against the current to advance education and the status of females will be supported and cheered.
His passionate efforts should have made him as much of a Nobel Peace Prize candidate as Malala was.