In 2009, I spent an afternoon talking with Malala Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddin, in an outdoor garden in Mingora, the capital of the Swat district of Pakistan, which had just been freed from months of Taliban control.
I thought of that conversation when Malala, now 17, received the prestigious Liberty Medal in Philadelphia last week, and when she was named co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month.
When I met her father, the name of his precocious 12-year-old was still unknown to the world — and he was still keeping it a secret — although she had been blogging under a pseudonym for the BBC for the previous year about life under the Taliban.
But Ziauddin’s courage as a civic activist and champion of girls’ education was already well known to locals in the Swat valley, and he was on the Taliban hit list. “I was afraid I would be killed and I had to sleep at different places outside my home,” he told me, at a time when the Taliban was cutting off heads of opponents in Swat. “The Taliban wanted to negate our right to culture, music, poetry, and education, and to impose their culture on us.”
As Malala’s name garners headlines, I believe it is important to recognize the crucial role her father played in her intellectual development, along with the role of open-minded male relatives who help women rise up in societies that want to keep them down.
The Swat valley is a lush district of orchards, streams, and waterfalls; it used to be a destination for middle-class Pakistani tourists and honeymooners. A traditional princely ruler, or wali, had built a network of schools in the valley that helped the region outpace the literacy rate in other areas of Pakistan (although it faltered after the wali’s death in 1969).
In traditional Pakistani tribal society, female illiteracy is shockingly high — even Malala’s mother is only now learning to read. Women are expected to remain subservient and nearly invisible. Ziauddin wanted to change that pattern and founded the Khushal Public School for girls in Mingora nearly two decades ago. As he movingly described in a TED talk about his daughter, he proudly admitted Malala into his school when she was 41/2 years old. (TED talks by intriguing people are posted online at www.ted.com/talks).
“Why should I mention the admission of a girl in a school?” he asks rhetorically. “It may be taken for granted ... in many developed countries, but in patriarchal societies ... it’s a big event for the life of the girl. Enrollment in a school means recognition of her identity and her name. ...(It) means that she has entered the world of dreams ... where she can explore her potential for her future life.
“I have five sisters, and none of them could go to school. What my father could not give to my sisters and to his daughters, I thought I must change it.” He did.
Had her father not had this progressive mindset, it’s unlikely that Malala could have led her fight for girls’ education, no matter her talents. Indeed, it is almost as critical to educate men and boys in traditional societies about the value of educating girls as it is to fight for the right of girls to attend school. (Changing the male mindset in traditional societies may be even harder than opening doors for girls.)
However, from the moment of Malala’s birth, her father displayed a totally different outlook. As he pointed out, in patriarchal societies the birth of a girl is not celebrated. But when Malala was born, he said, “I looked into her eyes (and) I got extremely honored.” He named her after a legendary Afghan freedom fighter, Malalai of Maiwand. And when a relative brought him a Yousafzai family tree, tracing male ancestors back 300 years, he drew a line from his name and wrote “Malala,” the first female name on the page.
Sadly, the Taliban have staged a partial comeback in Swat. When Malala was shot in the head at age 15 by a Taliban goon, her grief-stricken father asked his wife whether he was to blame. Was he wrong to have broken societal rules?
His illiterate wife, whose father followed those rules, gave a firm answer, as he recalled: “You put your life at stake for the cause of truth ... and for the cause of education, and your daughter is inspired from you and she joined you. You both were on the right path, and God will protect her.”
Now Malala has recovered and become the best-known campaigner for girls’ education in the world. But her story reminds us that, as I’ve heard repeatedly from activist women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, support from male relatives is usually crucial in enabling them to move forward.
It’s not that those men made the women what they are. Their key role is often quite different. Ziauddin Yousafzai put it well when he described his response to people asking whether he had “made Malala so bold and so courageous.”
“I tell them, ‘Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do,' ” her father says. “I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.”
For that wisdom, so rare and courageous in his world, Malala’s father deserves full recognition as a partner in the major awards she has achieved.