Ziauddin Yousafzai: 'Be the sort of parent you want your children to become'
If Malala Yousafzai is the face of international non-violent resistance, her dad is its backbone
As a man famous worldwide for being a model father, Ziauddin Yousafzai has a very simple outlook on family life.
“Be the sort of parent you want your children to become, because these things are circular and family is the most important thing of all,” he tells The National.
Malala Yousafzai’s family have displayed a remarkable resilience to the trials they’ve faced since the Taliban targeted the schoolgirl, who had become a voice against its strictures, in a notorious 2012 bus attack. Not only did the Yousafzais face the traumatic events of medical evacuation and a long recovery process, but they were uprooted from the Swat Valley, their majestic homeland, which is a cultural hub.
Ziauddin, Malala, her mother Toor Pekai and brothers Khushal and Atal, resettled in Birmingham, central England, and have adjusted to an urban lifestyle hitherto little-known to the family.
Understanding inequality from an early age
Yet for Ziauddin, there is a strong sense that his life history had prepared him for these events. From an early age, the privilege of being the only son of the local cleric was apparent to him, and while he enjoyed aspects of special treatment, he knew it was unequal.
“I was my father’s son as well as his assistant, and I was growing up with these five sisters at home. As a child, I was different, and I was more valued, more loved, more respected for being a boy,” he says. “If I had been a sixth daughter to my parents, nobody would have heard of me after 13, 14 years.
“Both my parents had great dreams for me, they wanted to see me as a very influential person,” he says. “For their daughters, their only dream was to get them married as soon possible. I could see at a very early age, the inequalities and discrimination within the four walls of our house.”
Decades later, he has achieved the prominence and success that his parents craved, but not by any route they could have foreseen. Even before the assassination attempt on his daughter, he was a trailblazer, setting up his own school in Mingora.
'Malala was a girl born in a patriarchal society'
When the Talibanisation of Swat began with a ban on girls’ education in January 2009, Yousafzai recalls in his book, Let Her Fly, how he focused on ensuring that Malala could continue to learn.
“I had always felt a deep bond with Malala and the Taliban’s ban on her education only reinforced my resolve,’ he writes. “Malala was a girl born in a patriarchal society. I was more focused on Malala than her brothers because they had been born into a society that favoured them.”
It was a principle that can be traced back to his own sisters being “deprived” of an education, he says. “I will not blame my father. For him being a cleric, sending his son to school was a step forward in itself,” he recounts.
Other developments grated with the young Ziauddin. A cousin bound in forced marriage who could not divorce, and honour killings in the locality. “All these things I trace to a lack of girls’ education. In short, if we educate girls, we end up healthier and wealthier as a society.”
Overcoming prejudice remained a daily battle, even within the family, in Pakistan. A cousin brought the family tree to Yousafzai, but visibly recoiled when the headmaster added Malala’s name to it.
The subsequent events and the defeat of the Taliban by Pakistan’s army following the attempt to kill Malala has softened attitudes. “This one girl with a book and with a voice was stronger than the bombs, weapons and suicide attackers of the Taliban.”
Let Her Fly gives due credit to Toor Pekai, who he says Malala takes after, especially in her sharp wit and determination. It is telling that the mother gives her daughter a birthday card on the anniversary of the attack every year to mark the beginning of her second life.
Before the attack, Malala had already become prominent in Pakistan through a blog for the BBC and documentary by The New York Times. Famously, she appeared on television to declare her intention of following in Benazir Bhutto’s footsteps as prime minister one day. As she travelled around the major cities, people approached her to offer encouragement. In the pre-selfie era, Yousafzai recalls a fellow passenger at Lahore airport asking for a photograph because one day “she would be someone”.
“In a patriarchal society I was known as the father of Malala, and was so proud.”
The incident that took place made life very difficult for our family, but the girl who was speaking for 50,000 girls in the area when the Taliban attacked her to silence her, is now speaking for 130 million girls.
In exile, Malala has won the Nobel Peace Prize and established a foundation with a worldwide footprint to fight for girls’ education and equality. Yousafzai is a co-founder of the Malala Fund and a United Nations special adviser on Global Education. His recent work has expanded more broadly to equality of opportunity for women not only in schools and universities, but at work places as well. While his attachment to Swat remains strong, he is indefatigable in his determination to bring his messages to the world.
“[I was] running a small school that started with three children, and by the time Malala was attacked, I had 1,100 pupils,” he reveals. “That role was my first choice in life. I was a spokesman for the council of elders, and I ran a small [non-governmental] organisation. I loved living in the Swat Valley, it was like a paradise. The incident that took place made life very difficult for our family, but the girl who was speaking for 50,000 girls in the area when the Taliban attacked her to silence her, is now speaking for 130 million girls. The man who wanted to change his small town and its education, is now out there speaking for quality education for those girls, too.
“The difference is there I was a leader and Malala was inspired by me. Now on the global stage, she is the leader and I am one of her supporters.”
Hoping for change
The Taliban sought not only to rule the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the frontier region of Pakistan, but also to change its culture with rules on clothing, behaviour, music and beliefs, as they largely had already in Afghanistan.
“They are still trying to do it, they still want to impose themselves. Yes it was scary to stand up to them, but it was scarier still not stand up to them,” he says. “If this happens to the Swat Valley, these Taliban don’t believe in any kind of music, art, culture or education. If they impose themselves on us, it will be a life-long subjugation and we will be deprived of our basic human rights.
"When we suffer the loss of human rights, we stand up,” he explains. “If we don’t, we lose our humanity.”
The family’s return to Swat last year was a highly controlled event with state-level security and only brief stops at the family home and other familiar places. Yousafzai warns, however, that the situation could yet regress. Much is at stake in how Pakistan’s new government maintains a strong front against extremism.
“What kind of narrative the government gives to the people is very important,” he says. “There should be no room for non-state elements. We should not tolerate anybody with a gun for any kind of agenda. If there is a change in policy, I am very hopeful we will get rid of this militancy completely within a few years.”
In particular the challenge of eliminating the indoctrination that comes with education in Pakistan has not been tackled. “Reaching to the youth to enlighten their hearts and minds so they are not filled with hate and fear is important. Education should enlighten you with respect for other cultures, for diversity and make you somebody who believes in equality,” he explains. “Change comes from the bottom of your heart, when you are selfless the message spreads so wide, so fast. When you believe in something, it is not just words, but action that counts.”
Yousafzai highlights the role of the UAE as a pioneer of equality and tolerance policies that has had an impact on societies far beyond its own borders. “I have been to the UAE and I have seen girls and women are involved in the social sector and in government services,” he tells me. “That is so encouraging because so many people from my country and elsewhere see that if you are more independent, you will be free.”
Even the cousin living in Swat who was angered by the female name added to the Yousafzai tree has mellowed in his views. “That man was the first to greet us last year in Shangla and say how proud he was,” he says.
As a poet, he wrote poem in Pashto at the age of 19, titled The Promise. “At that point, I promised the girls and women, I stand with you, you are not just for children, you should break the walls of Berlin.” The promise given in his teens remains his lifetime mission.
Updated: February 3, 2019 07:02 PM