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'I tell people: girls and women in patriarchal societies, they die as if they were never born'

Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala, has written a moving memoir.

Zia_845 Source: Ziauddin Yousafzai

GROWING UP IN Pakistan, Ziauddin Yousafzai noticed something strange once he hit his early teens: his female friends started disappearing.

No longer were they playing on the roof with him and their other male friends. Instead, they were kept indoors, “trapped inside four walls”. Why? Because they were female. They were denied the opportunity to be educated, and the opportunity to work, and were not even mentioned on their family trees.

Living in a patriarchal society like this, Yousafzai was used to being treated well because of his gender. But he didn’t think this was good enough – it was not equal enough. Why should his sisters get less because of being female?

When he grew up and got married, he decided he did not want his wife to be subject to the rules of a patriarchal culture. He also didn’t want his daughter and two sons to be constrained by them too. He became a teacher, opening his own school and teaching young girls and boys. His daughter gave lectures about the importance of education for women.

In 2012, his daughter was shot by the Taliban for speaking out about educating girls. His daughter was Malala.

Speaking out against patriarchy

When we meet in TheJournal.ie‘s offices, Ziauddin Yousafzai is on the road promoting his first book, a memoir called Let Her Fly. It’s a beautiful and emotional read, throwing light on why he is so passionate about equality and education. I tell him that I shed a few tears reading it. He smiles. “I wrote it for you,” he says. Meaning that he wrote it for all of us.

He says it’s full of the lessons he learned in life, lessons which led him to becoming an activist for gender equality. 

Was it hard for him to speak out – and act out against – patriarchy, when it was the norm in his society? “Yeah,” he says. “When you stand against social taboos, and social norms, especially those norms which go against the basic human rights and when you stand in the beginning… it’s very difficult and stressful, and the first person you come across who opposes you is you.”

He puts this down to the fact that you “are the part of the old system”, and staying within it keeps you in your comfort zone. To change requires you to defeat your own old self and take a new journey of righteousness and enlightenment. The thought of what you will achieve is what keeps you strong.

Backlash

Backlash did come from friends and family – his own nephew, who is a big supporter of Malala now, at first was quite shocked by her media appearances aged just 12 and 13, before her attack. Traditionally she was supposed to be inside the house and she was supposed to be invisible to him, explains her father.

His nephew told Malala’s mother that some of his friends believed this was breaking social values. When Yousafzai was told this, he sent his nephew a message: “[I] told him that he shouldn’t have poked his nose in our family affairs. This is me and my family and he has nothing to do with it.”

Let Her Fly high res

Some of his close friends were shocked at the freedom afforded to his wife and daughter. But Yousafzai has ploughed on regardless. 

“I trust my wife, I do not have an issue, and you should not tell – take care of your own wives,” he would tell them.

Malala was the first female added to the Yousafzai family tree, which shocked other family members. But a cousin of Yousafzai who opposed this later wrote a long poem to praise Malala, and brought his daughters to meet her – small things which meant a lot to her father.

“I have seen many people change through my life,” says Yousafzai.

After Malala’s recovery from the Taliban attack (which affected her hearing and the facial nerves on the left side of her face), the family moved to Birmingham so she could continue her treatment.

There was huge global interest in her recovery, due to the horror that the Taliban would attack a young girl in order to make their point known about female education. Shooting a girl on the bus back from school (the book reveals that her younger brother narrowly missed out on witnessing it) was proof that the group would stoop very low in order to make their point.

‘My sisters’ dream was to get married’

Yousafzai believes that education is key to improving gender equality, and this is why he and Malala continue to travel the world raising awareness of the issue.

When he talks about education, Yousafzai gets extremely passionate and energetic. He says education “is the most important right and the most important thing you can give to your children”. None of his five sisters went to school, but he and his brothers were educated. “[My parents] gave me very, very big dreams but for my sisters their own dream was to get married as early as possible. And that’s why I tell people that girls and women in patriarchal societies – they die as if they were never born.”

Through education, he says you can see people’s potential. As a child, he was bullied for his stammer and his dark skin, but a teacher’s kindness to him one day changed things. The teacher took a science exam result of Yousafzai’s and showed it to other pupils, holding it up as a good example. 

“That was the time that I realised that this education is my power, if my nose is big no problem, if my colour is dark no problem, if I stammer no problem,” he says. 

I think it was a blessing in disguise. If I had not been discriminated and mistreated for a different reason, rather than my gender then I would not be conscious to this gender inequality.

“I call it positive revenge,” he smiles. He has learned not to strike back when hit out at. “If somebody mistreats me I will not mistreat him. If I’m being incited, or bullied in some way I will not bully other people. I will fight against bullying people, so this happened in my life and I demand proactive and positive revenge against the very evil that was existing in society and one of the worst evils that I could see was gender inequality.”

‘You can’t be complacent’

It’s remarkable to read a book written by a father about how passionately he believes in equality for girls. It shouldn’t be so remarkable, but it is. 

Yousafzai says that things have changed hugely in Pakistan regarding gender equality, but people cannot be complacent. “30 years ago when I was a schoolboy I didn’t see any girl sitting beside me in the classroom or in college, but now there are hundreds of girls that are going to school in the village I was living in,” he says.

I see this very positive attitude in fathers’ behaviour – it’s occurring, it’s happening although we can’t be complacent that ‘oh everything is OK’. There are still communities in the rural areas in the less developed parts of Pakistan and even in other countries where girls are not sent to school, where there are girls’ schools that don’t have basic facilities, or there is a deficiency of teachers.

The family were living a very normal live in Swat in Pakistan – a beautiful valley which was popular among tourists – until the Taliban arrived in 2007.

“So up until 2006 and 7 we were fine, we were living a fantastic life. We never thought that rather than be a teacher or an educator I will be turning into a fighter for the right of education so all of this happened out of the circumstances.”

The Taliban spread “heinous propaganda against girl’s education” through FM radio, encouraging many girls to leave school. They also burned more than 400 schools. The atmosphere was chilling. At one point, the family became internally displaced people and had to move away from Swat for three months due to the Taliban regime.

Yousafzai describes what happened as someone coming and pulling the rug from under your feet. He knew he had to stand against it. “Because we couldn’t see our most precious gems [girls] stolen or taken away by bad guys. And in that situation I was standing for the right of education. I spoke out… and in English they say ‘like father, like son’, but in our family it was like father, like daughter.” Malala followed in her activist father’s footsteps.

He says his daughter “was the direct victim of Talibanisation but she decided not to remain a victim”. 

A voice more powerful than bombs

Ziauddin has an incredibly close relationship with his daughter in many ways, but the title of his book- Let Her Fly – shows how he is willing to let her be as she is. She lives now in Oxford, where she is studying.

He recounts stories of how as a child she encouraged him to take street children into his school for free, as she was so appalled at what little they had in their lives (this was something he did do). “She had this great empathy in her heart,” he says with pride. 

 He says his daughter’s voice “is more powerful than the bombs”.

“She was speaking for 50,000 girls in Swat whose education was banned and now thanks to God and thanks to all those people who supported her, right from the nurses and doctors to world leaders, to teachers and people of all faiths who prayed for her, now she is [raising awareness of] education for 130 million girls around the globe and she is asking world leaders to invest more in education,” he says.

The Taliban “picked the wrong girl.”

In the book, Yousafzai tells the story of what happened when Malala was attacked, and of the grief and shock the family went through. But he says that writing the book was cathartic. “As a whole it’s the kind of experience that gives you solace and it gives you comfort and you feel good telling your story,” he says of writing Let Her Fly. 

As for what his treasured daughter Malala thinks of the book, he says that he didn’t expect her to read it all, but of course she did.

“She told me Aba [father], your book is beautiful, it is sweet… it’s beautiful.”

 Let Her Fly by Ziauddin Yousafzai with Louise Carpenter is published by W H Allen and is out now.

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