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Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s father, talking about radicalism, gender equality and raising an activist

By Alia Shoaib

One day in 1997 a girl was born in Swat Valley, Pakistan. Weeks later, a relative brought over a family tree. “I just looked at the family tree and they were all men— fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, traced back to 400 years,” said her father. “And there were no women on the tree. And I just picked up my pen and wrote Malala’s name.”

Malala Yousafzai is now a household name. A Nobel laureate at 17 and global campaigner for women’s rights, she became a public figure one fateful day in October 2012 when a Taliban gunman shot her in the head. While many know her, few know her father Ziauddin Yousafzai— a fearless activist in his own right.

Writing Malala’s name on the family tree was a small act of rebellion, a sign that Yousafzai was going to be a different father to most men he knew. After all, he had never seen his five sisters’ names written down.

From a young age Yousafzai recognised his world was not a fair one. Growing up in patriarchal north Pakistan, he saw that lives of men and women were starkly different. “There were two sets of parenthood— one for girls and another for boys.” 

While the birth of sons warranted celebration, daughters meant a house in mourning. While he and his brother were educated and encouraged to reach for the stars, his sisters were taught to be unobtrusive and subservient. 

Having witnessed honour killings and unhappy arranged marriages, he pledged his own daughter’s life would be different.

His special bond with Malala was instant. “From the first moment I saw her when she was a newborn baby, her eyes were open like bright little stars. I felt like my heart and soul were blessed that morning.”

Over the years they became a formidable duo— campaigning side-by-side in Swat, then travelling the world together with the Malala Fund. “We are friends and comrades”, he said.

He became involved in local politics at college in Swat, and became a passionate activist for education, women’s rights, democracy, the environment. 

Reflecting on what he taught Malala, he said: “What she learned from me is to raise her voice when she sees any injustice and inequality. If I had not been speaking out, she would have been the same brilliant girl, but not on this path.”

Education was critical to his development, and made him a lifelong advocate of it. “Education changed me. It transformed me into the person that I am. It made my inner being beautiful.” He dreamed of opening a school, which he finally did in the town of Mingora, pouring his heart, soul, and savings, into it.

The Taliban came to Swat in 2003. The leader, Mullah Fazlullah, was known as Radio Mullah because he took to the airwaves morning and night, speaking to people in their living rooms and kitchens, preaching a puritanical form of Islam. Soon he started speaking out against music and dancing. Next, education for girls. It began with verbal warnings, and became burning down CD shops and schools. 

They killed police officers in front of their families and took control of police stations. “They were sending a message to the people that we are stronger than the state.”

Their brutality reached a fever pitch in 2008/9 when they staged regular suicide attacks, public floggings and beheadings.

As all around him quietened, Yousafzai refused to be silenced. Despite having a stammer that plagued his childhood confidence, he grew to be a powerful and eloquent speaker in Pashto, Urdu and English. He was a regular fixture in the media, in town meetings and councils, using his voice to remind people that the Taliban were not propagating Islam, but rather abusing and distorting it. 

It’s hard to imagine this kind-eyed, soft-spoken man as an unflinching challenger of brutal terrorists— but he was. Unfailingly modest, he attributes his bravery to a sense of duty. “It was scary to speak against the Taliban, but it was scarier not to.”

“Just imagine living in such subjugation. After all that, how can you not speak? Life is not just about breathing in oxygen and giving out carbon dioxide.”

“Better to die in peace and with dignity than to live with that shame.”

Death threats didn’t stop him. “I used to change my route to school every day because I was afraid that they may be hiding somewhere and may kill me.” When the Taliban banned education for girls beyond primary school, he snuck them in through side entrances, and older girls pretended to be younger. 

Malala followed in his activist footsteps, starting with writing an anonymous BBC blog about life under Taliban rule at age 11.

She became their next target. “I could blame myself because I took it for granted that they will not kill a girl, a child. It was against Pashtun tradition.”

After the shooting, their lives were turned upside down. Malala was flown to Birmingham for treatment, her family followed, and so began their new life.

Yousafzai never names the gunman. He says an ideology shot Malala, not a person. He understands how easily indoctrination can happen, as in his youth he briefly flirted with radicalism. His theology teacher began inculcating him with romanticised ideas of jihad, and set against the backdrop of the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s, where the mujahideen were glorified, it was easy. 

He quickly abandoned radical thoughts, but explained: “The problem is that we close all the windows of information for our children and leave just one open. And then it’s easy to get indoctrinated. You turn a nice, beautiful, creative human being into a robotic suicide attacker.”

He also believes education is the most powerful equaliser between genders. Beyond being unjust, he says not educating women is simply illogical. The Malala Fund calculated if every girl was educated for 12 years, it would add $30 trillion to the world economy.

He continues to try and better his homeland from miles away, setting up a state-of-the-art school for girls in his hometown, Shangla.

He hopes attitudes in Pakistan will change, and believes that starts with education. “If you educate a girl, she becomes your pride. Let her be your pride.”