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Malala’s father on becoming a feminist and the battle for gender equality

Cindy Ord, Getty Images, AFP | Ziauddin Yousafzai speaks onstage during the American Institute for Stuttering 12th Annual Freeing Voices Changing Lives Benefit Gala at Gustavino's on July 9, 2018 in New York City.

Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala, was a feminist long before the Taliban tried to assassinate his daughter. He has written his own memoir about his childhood and raising his family under the glare of fundamentalism.

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Malala Yousafzai was only 15-years-old when she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman as she was taking the bus home from school on October 9th 2012. The attacker boarded the bus and shouted “which one of you is Malala?” before shooting her in the head and neck. She survived.

Malala had received death threats before this, but her father had not been expecting her to be attacked. “In Pashtun culture, even in the worst of conflicts or feuds, a child and a girl is not supposed to be [a target],” said Ziauddin. “The attack was the worst thing that could happen to a family and remembering it is still traumatic. But it did not affect our commitment to equality.”

An activist himself and a retired teacher, Ziauddin held the belief that feminism was the future long before the birth of his famous daughter, Malala.

Ziauddin was born in Shangla on April 20th 1969, the son of the respected orator Rohul Amin Yousafzai, who was also a teacher of theology at a government high school and Imam of the local mosque.

Severe stutter

As a little boy with a severe stutter, he had grown up in a village in Shangla, northern Pakistan, surrounded by patriarchy. “I had five sisters and a brother and I saw how we boys got better shoes, more clothes, and tastier cuts of chicken than the girls,” he recalls in an opinion column in Time Magazine.

He saw how his mother couldn’t go out unescorted and, on documents like doctors’ prescriptions, was never referred to by her name – Maharo Bibi – but as mother of Ziauddin, or wife of Rohul Amin. And, worst of all, he saw how he got to go to school, while his sisters had to stay at home.

Ziauddin was determined that if he ever became a father himself, he would be a very different one.

“When I married my wife, Toor Pekai, we chose to build an egalitarian family, respecting each other as equal partners and raising our daughter Malala the same way we raised our sons, Khusal and Atal. I didn’t hear the word feminist until I was 45, after the attack on Malala led us to move to the city of Birmingham in the U.K. But it was feminism I had been trying to spread in my family, and in my community, for years.”

'Let her fly'

Ziauddin had a long road to travel before he would become the father of the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, as he reveals in his newly published memoir ‘Let Her Fly’.

“I’m not sure why I chose to start that journey, while other men accept the values passed down to them for centuries. Maybe it’s because I was bullied as a child, for my dark skin and my stammering problem, so I was angry about any kind of discrimination against someone for the way they are born.

"But I am sure of one thing: patriarchy is sheer stupidity. Fathers have a great interest in dismantling it. And we as campaigners need to communicate that to them."

With just 15,000 rupees (190 euros), Ziauddin founded a progressive school in Shangla. The Khushal Public School welcomed both girls and boys to study together. “It was a very meagre capital, but the big capital and the big power that I had was my passion, my conviction, my connection to the community. The school I started had just three kids, but it had 1,100 students in 2012 - 500 girls and 600 boys.”

However, this region he lived in came under Taliban rule in 2008. The militants banned many things including television, music and education for girls. Any schools that did open for girls ran the real risk of being bombed. But Ziauddin and his wife Toor Pekai refused to accept this for their daughter. They realised the power of education and sent her to school.

'Education is the most powerful equaliser'

He faced criticism for this and also then for allowing his daughter to be in the public eye after her attack. But Ziauddin was adamant. “This one girl with a voice was more powerful than the bombs and guns of the Taliban. And education is the most powerful equaliser to bring about change.”

Ziauddin believes that fathers have a crucial role to play in the fight for women’s rights. “Of course, when your rights are being violated   at home, at work, anywhere   your voice is the most powerful to challenge your oppression. And so women’s voices are the most important in feminism. But in patriarchal societies, a father’s voice is perhaps the next most important tool to galvanize change.”

As well as being a parent, teacher an activist, Ziauddin is one of the board members for the Malala Fund, a charity he co-founded with his daughter. Its key purpose is to help the 130 million girls currently out of the education system. It has many international programmes including helping refugee girls access remote classrooms in Syria and Nigerian girls under threat of Boko Haram get to school.

But it is his work as a parent that makes Ziauddin most proud. “In patriarchal societies, fathers are known by their sons. But I'm one of the few fathers in the world who is known by his daughter. And I'm so proud of it.”

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