When 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education, the world was stunned by her bravery and wisdom. Nicola Slawson speaks to Malala’s father, Ziauddin, about education, equality and the upbringing that helped shape Malala
“You know, when I talk I stutter occasionally.” It’s a surprising admission from a man who just a couple of months ago took to the stage at TED2014 in Vancouver and delivered a performance worthy of a standing ovation and 750,000 views online in just a few weeks.
Ziauddin Yousafzai’s stammer was one of the things he used to inspire his students when he was the principal of a chain of schools in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan. This was before his daughter Malala was shot by the Taliban when she was just 15 years old.
“My top priority was confidence-building in children – to make them able to express their views and ideas, to trust themselves – to speak up,” he says.
“I used to say to them, ‘Look, I stammer when I speak and God has given you very fluent tongues, so speak up … If a weak man like me could be stronger, then what’s wrong with you?’”
For someone with a speech impediment, Yousafzai certainly likes to talk, which is probably just as well given he’s the United Nations special adviser on global education, the educational attaché to the Pakistani Consulate in Birmingham and the co-founder of The Malala Fund, a charitable trust set up in Malala’s name to campaign for girls’ education worldwide. On top of all that, he’s a father not just to Malala, but also to her younger brothers, Khushal and Atal.
Being busy is something Yousafzai is used to, though. In Swat before the shooting, he was a respected educator, the leader of the elders of the valley and a social activist who was often being interviewed on local television about peace, protecting Swat Valley and the importance of education.
Advocating for education and women’s rights is still top of his agenda. When speaking at the recent launch event for Girl Up, a platform to empower girls worldwide, he told the audience: “If you want to see a change in the life of your family and if you want to see change in your country, don’t clip the wings of your daughters and sisters. Let them be free.”
Access to education, he believes, is the key to development. “If we keep half of the population back, we can’t move forward,” Yousafzai told the Girl Up audience.
“If we keep half of the population back, we can’t move forward”
We’re sitting in the living room of the family home in Birmingham, occasionally getting distracted by nine-year-old Atal, who, if possible, talks even more than his father. However, whenever the subject of education arises, Yousafzai is absolutely focused. He leans forward, his face becomes animated and his voice rises.
“If we want to bring a positive change in all respects of human life – in political life, social life, in health – education is the only way. This change is durable and sustainable. It doesn’t need to shed blood.”
He relates it back to his own life, where he as a man with a stutter from rural Pakistan – a country still dominated by tribal and feudal politics – now advises Gordon Brown, the United Nations special envoy for global education.
“My experience and my life tell me that education has empowered me. Had I not been educated, who would I have been to express my views? Education gave me that power.”
Education gave his famous daughter power too. Malala was just 11 years old when she started blogging for BBC Urdu about her experiences of being a schoolgirl in Swat, where the Taliban was growing in influence. Girls’ education, music and television were among the things they were trying to ban at the time.
“Look at Malala. If she had not been in school, she wouldn’t have been so powerful. Her education gave her a power to raise her voice. Had she been illiterate, she would not have been able to speak with a cause, with a vision, with persistence.”
Following the popularity of Malala’s blog, she soon became a public advocate for girls’ education and was often interviewed on local television. It wasn’t long before she received threats from the Taliban. “She was a little celebrity in her own right. She had become a burning beacon,” Yousafzai says with pride. “Her message was spreading. The Taliban just couldn’t stand it.”
Now a household name worldwide, she has continued to fight for women’s and girls’ rights. Her memoir, I am Malala, has been translated into 38 languages and compared to The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. But what kind of parenting leads to a family raising the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel peace prize, I asked Yousafzai.
“When people hear my daughter and when they know about her wisdom and maturity, they think that her father must have been sitting with her and mentoring her. They think he would have spent a lot of time in bringing her up. They think he would have constructed her.”
The truth is quite the opposite. “I was the most busiest man in Pakistan,” he says with a laugh. It was his busy schedule, he claims, that meant his family led a far more independent life than those of their peers. “I could not make enough time to sit with Malala and Khushal and Atal and [teach] them. So that’s why I say don’t ask me what I did do, ask me what I didn’t do. I didn’t clip her wings. I let her live as she wished.”
He goes on to explain how his treatment of his wife might also have influenced Malala: “She saw that I encouraged her mother to go to the marketplace [on her own] and to meet people. Usually it would be strange for any other principal in my valley. Their wives would observe purdah.” Purdah is the practice in some Muslim countries of women being secluded from men. “My wife, I encouraged not to, and to meet the other workers and teachers. Our school was our family.”
Children learn more from what parents do than what they teach them, Yousafzai believes. “So what I did, she learned that. And I was an activist, so the picture is becoming clear. In that environment, she became Malala,” he concludes.
“Our school was our family”
Malala marked her 16th birthday in July last year by addressing an audience at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In her speech, she described education as “our most powerful weapon,” and insisted that “one child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”
She added: “I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all terrorists and extremists.”
Most recently she has spoken up for the more than 200 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Nigeria and, at the time of going to press, are still missing. The people of Nigeria have been in the family’s thoughts, especially as there are similarities with their own experience. Like the Taliban, the terrorist group Boko Haram, who claim responsibility for taking the girls, are also trying to ban girls’ education.
Yousafzai comments: “Malala has said she is their sister and all girls around the world are their sisters and they stand with them. And all parents should stand with their parents. I stand with them. They should know there is hope. There is light even in the darkest cloud.”
In the Yousafzai family, their darkest cloud was the moment Malala was shot in the face at point-blank range while on a school bus with her friends. It was her spirit and resilience that was their light in such a terrible time, Yousafzai says. “She could have become depressed afterwards, or otherwise traumatised. Never mind her physical state. Instead she stood back up with more power and strength. She turned a trauma into a global campaign.”
It’s a campaign that doesn’t just have terrorist organisations to contend with. The fundamental attitudes of society in many developing countries make gender equality in all areas, not just education, a big challenge.
Yousafzai explains: “People in Swat say ‘Please God, give me a son and the rest I will do’. It’s a patriarchal society, so daughters are kept in homes. [A father] knows if he has a son, then his son will do business and he will earn money.
“I say, give them education and the rest will be done by them. These are centuries-old things. It will take time to unlearn them.”
The interview is drawing to a close and I’m admiring the garden. It’s a long way from his beloved Swat Valley. Yousafzai reminisces: “I have spent very hard days when I was a student and when I first began my family. But I never called myself poor. I never felt that I’m poor. It’s a mindset. It’s a feeling.
“I was the richest in my thoughts. I was thinking: I would make my life good, my community life good and I would bring something,” he adds with a smile.
Back in the house, someone shouts up at Malala for her to come downstairs. And like any other teenager, she shouts something back about not being ready. I feel that I could be in the house of any ordinary family up and down the country. Atal is nagging his father for a new spinning-top toy and 14-year-old Khushal is putting his trainers on so he can go and play football. When Malala joins us, she talks of her favourite subjects at school – “physics, history … and English is nice too,” – and tells her brother off for playing with my camera with wet hands.
Thorpekai, Yousafzai’s wife, joins us, and the whole family have fun trying to guess my age. It’s a surreal moment after talking about global campaigns, assassination attempts and Nobel peace prizes. Their closeness is evident. For all the remarkable things about this family, it’s this and their simple family values that shine.
Yousafzai turns to me, concluding his thoughts. “As Malala once said – and I love this quote of hers – ‘We were a poor family with rich values.’”