This book doesn’t just underline what Malala has been able to achieve growing up in a family celebrating opportunity and equality, but the difference she might be able to make in the future
Book review: Ziauddin Yousafzai's moving memoir tells of his family's incredible story
When the school bus Malala Yousafzai was travelling on was attacked by a Taliban gunman in 2012, her father, Ziauddin, was, coincidentally enough, about to give a speech on the private schooling that had become so important to him, Malala and countless other girls in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Ziauddin’s phone was off, but word got through that Malala had been hurt. Confusion reigned. How badly? Was her younger brother Atal on board, too?
The appalling reality would soon hit Ziauddin. He saw his 15-year-old daughter’s head wet with blood, a bullet having smashed through her face and neck and lodged in her shoulder. “I was beyond crying,” he writes in his moving new memoir Let Her Fly: A Father’s Journey. “The only way I can describe it was like being sucked into a deep black hole. I was out of the frame of time and space.” He still lives with the trauma of almost losing Malala every day.
Malala is, of course, a phenomenon – but then, the one-time teenage blogger was a sensation before the attack, the Nobel Peace Prize win and the influence she now wields for furthering the rights of girls. Ziauddin – now himself a UN Special Adviser on Global Education (which in typical self-effacing fashion he barely mentions in the book) – is rightly proud, but genuinely believes Malala’s force of nature was mostly down to her own natural spark, intensity and love of learning.
Let Her Fly is generous like that. Ziauddin, like his daughter, doesn’t dwell on the attack, instead fashioning a moving, compelling story of his own enlightenment, of how a boy growing up in a family that never even wrote down the names of its females could end up “drowning patriarchy in the River Swat”, through love, decency and humanity.
How Ziauddin believes he made a difference is instructive. When he had sons of his own, he didn’t lecture them on equality. He simply made sure they saw and understood that he treated their mother and elder sister as equal human beings. “It is the same formula for a drop of water as it is for an entire ocean,” is just one of the many wise lines in Let Her Fly. “That’s how I believe social change comes about,” he writes. “It starts with you.”
Ziauddin and writer Louise Carpenter gather together his reflections on life, family, politics and society in an innovative way, too. Rather than a straight chronological memoir, the material is compiled in chapters on “Father” “Sons”, “Wife and Best Friend” and, naturally, “Daughter”.
It makes for a fluid, discursive and thoughtful book, which allows for fascinating little personal nuggets (such as setting up his family in the United Kingdom after the attack on Malala) to sit in broader contexts about identity. In fact, the sections on his wife Toor Pekai are some of the most emotional in the entire book – particularly when he speaks of his pain that, because of language and culture, she felt less free in England than in Pakistan.
Of course, for all the qualities of Ziauddin’s incredible story, for a large part of Let Her Fly there is the nagging question of whether encouraging his daughter to speak up, combined with his own very public activism for girls’ education, made him, in some way, responsible for Malala’s attack, given he knew she had become a Taliban target. Had he put his daughter’s life at stake? So it’s fascinating to find him confront that exact question late in the memoir. He remembers wrestling with terrible guilt immediately after the attack, wondering exactly what he’d been working towards that was worth the sacrifice of his child.
As so often in this book, his justification is that the strength and purity of Malala’s will, even as a teenager, was such that he could convince himself that it had been Malala’s fight as much as his.
It was Toor Pekai, though, who made him realise that it wasn’t his fault that the Taliban chose to shoot Malala simply because she wanted to be educated. “Malala did not make an army,” he points out. “She did not raise a gun. She raised a voice, which is her right.”
This book doesn’t just underline what Malala has been able to achieve growing up in a family celebrating opportunity and equality, but the difference she might be able to make in the future. For what Malala does with a voice nurtured by Ziauddin Yousafzai and his incredible family certainly has the potential to bring about fundamental change in Pakistan and the world over.
And perhaps, one day, Ziauddin can go back to Pakistan himself and finish what he had started.
Let Her Fly: A Father’s Journey, published by WH Allen, is out now