Malala Yousafzai’s father, Ziauddun: ‘Let all girls fly’

The activist’s courage has never wavered, despite the Taliban’s attack on his daughter

Let Her Fly: Ziauddin Yousafzai with his daughter in the 2015 documentary He Called Me Malala

Let Her Fly: Ziauddin Yousafzai with his daughter in the 2015 documentary He Called Me Malala

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“When I looked in her eyes that morning my heart was filled with joy,” says Ziauddin Yousafzai, recalling the day he met his daughter Malala for the first time. “It was morning time, and her eyes were open, and I thought, ‘she’s not a new-born maybe she’s been there for a week’…Such open eyes. Such bright eyes. Beautiful eyes.”

He named her after Pakistani folk hero Malalai of Maiwand because she was one of the few Pakistani women he could think of who had been granted her own identity. A few weeks later his cousin visited with a family tree.

“And when I looked at the tree they were all men,” he says. “I included Malala’s name on that tree, and it was like a shocking surprise for him…‘Oh girls’ names are not there.’ I just smiled...The same cousin who had this grimace on his face, later when Malala became very popular in Pakistan for her activism and education campaign, he wrote a long poem to praise her. “It’s important to remember that people change.”

His own strong belief in equality come partly from reading, which is why he is such an advocate for education, and partly from the fact that he was a sensitive boy with a stammer who had his own experiences of bullying.

He says from an early age it seemed wrong that he was seen as the most important sibling because he was a boy.

“My sisters were more handsome than me. They were more eloquent than me. They were more fluent [but] my parents’ dreams for me were very big. They wanted to see me be a doctor, a very important person in the society, to be the kind of person who can earns a lot of money...But for my sisters the only dream was to find a husband and get them married as soon as possible.”

Forced marriage

Several years later, when his cousin ran away from a forced marriage and ended up being shot and injured, he vowed to help change things.

“It was a life changing point in my life. I wrote a poem…‘I swear on every sigh of a pain, all girls, I will stand with you. I will break all these shackles and chains of slavery…e are dreaming for a new age’.”

And so he began to speak out. The one thing Ziaddin Yousafzai knows how to do is speak. He still stammers occasionally, but he is a born orator.

“That is a success for all stammerers in the world. When I was 13 I told [my father] that I wanted to give a speech in the school. There was some kind of contest…The other boys who were speaking became very popular in the school, and I wanted to be like them. It was natural. My father was a bit confused, but he wrote me a speech…After the speech a teacher whispered in my ear in Pashto, ‘you spread the fire.’ Those words were so powerful for me.”

As a teacher himself he used to get upset “when I asked a child to say something and there was silence…I would say (he whispers) please, if I can speak with stammering, you can!”

When he started his school it quickly became “a centre for social change”. He would make arguments against child marriages. He convinced parents to allow their daughters to be educated. He met resistant fathers who are now proud of their educated girls.

He says it is all about persuasion and respectful argument. “Change occurs when you work with sincerity and with strategy.” And when Malala was older she became a “comrade in this mission”.

“We used to go to villages and she’d meet girls, and I would talk to the men about girls’ education.”

Yousafzai family: Ziauddin with his son Atal, wife, Torpekai, and daughter, Malala, in the Swat valley in March this year. Photograph: Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty
Yousafzai family: Ziauddin with his son Atal, wife, Torpekai, and daughter, Malala, in the Swat valley in March this year. Photograph: Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty

Very beautiful

What happened when the Taliban came to the Swat valley?

“Before Talibanisation we had wonderful peace. Queen Elizabeth called Swat the Switzerland of the east. It’s very beautiful. We had no problems. We used go out in the street at midnight drinking Pakistani tea.

“But then Taliban came to Swat and local people turned into Taliban because of their politics and poverty...[soon] we could see these Taliban in our street, and they bombed more than 400 schools, the majority of them girls’ schools. It was so shocking…That was a time when Malala used to go to school hiding her books in her shawl.”

It began gradually, he says, starting with the radio propaganda of Maulana Fazlullah. “The worst thing that he did was he took women into confidence. He used to speak to them directly…‘We are working for Islam’. He did propaganda against girls’ education. He used to name and appreciate girls and families who left school...He became more militant. He became more and more violent, and we had suicide attacks every day. One day in Mingora more than 52 people were killed and more than a 100 were wounded. Can you imagine?”

How did he find the courage to speak out in those circumstances?

“In the beginning there were not many threats. We were in the centre of the town and the Taliban started from the peripheries...They gradually came to the centre.”

Swat had become a centre of interest for international media, but few would speak out. He recalls a talk show where not one person would diverge from the Taliban line. “So the media would come to our school, and Malala with other girls would speak for their education.”

Later he was asked if he could find an older student to write an anonymous blog for the BBC. One student agreed, but the next day her father said that she couldn’t do it. “Malala was there, and she said, ‘why don’t I do it?’”

‘Taliban are horrible’

Eventually he heard that he had personally been threatened on the radio. He finds it hard to comprehend his own bravery in retrospect. “It is terrifying, but when you speak and stand for your rights it is such a powerful thing… you get the strength…You think, ‘if I can achieve it, even at the cost of my life, it’s worth it’.”

It never occurred to him that they would come for Malala. He never believed she was in danger because there is a huge taboo against hurting children in Pakistan. “But Taliban are horrible. They are terrorists. They don’t have any ethics or values.”

One day a Taliban gunman boarded a bus looking for Malala by name and he shot her. Two other girls were injured. A bullet was lodged very close to Malala’s brain, and she was put into an induced coma. She was brought from Mingora to Peshawar, where she was treated by a British doctor, now family friend, Dr Fiona Reynolds, and eventually she was brought to Birmingham.

He says it is still difficult for him to talk about it. “I forgot how to cry. My world was completely a dark space. I was in a dark space. I couldn’t see anything, and I forgot to cry or how to express myself.”

When Malala eventually came out of the coma the first thing she did was to ask where her father was. “She thought I was killed. She had had dreams, different dreams than what happened to her. The blessing to her is that she doesn’t remember anything about the attack.”

Over time she recovered. She has a cochlear implant now because the hearing in her left ear was so badly damaged, but she went on to continue speaking eloquently about girls’ education and won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. But you know all that.

Lines of poetry

Her father remembers the point he knew it was going to be okay.

“I had this fear about whether her memory was good or not. [At first] she forgot English words and Urdu words. She was best in her mother tongue...so I used to talk to her in Pashto and say, ‘oh Malala because I am a poet and because I like poetry so much, do you know these words?” and he would utter a few lines of poetry.

“One day she said ‘yeah, I know it, but I wanted to change it.’ The verse said, ‘if the men cannot do, women will come and they will accomplish.’…I said ‘how can you change it? It’s a good thing?’ She said ‘No. If I next want to express myself in a gathering, I intend to say, ‘if the men do or do not do, we have to accomplish it.’ It brought tears to my eyes. I thought, ‘Malala the warrior is not wounded or injured. She is alive. She is intact’.”

The family has lived in Birmingham now for 5½ years “My children have this brummie accent.” He attempts it. “They say ‘are you okaaaay’.” He laughs. “They drag the last syllable. Mondaaay. Sundaaaay.”

Why did they stay there?

It was initially so that Malala could continue to receive medical treatment. “But it was also so my children could be educated in a peaceful environment without any fear. This is why it’s so important when we talk about every child’s right to quality, free and safe education.

“Because when education is not safe, when occupied by security forces or there a threat from terrorists, it’s so difficult to study and continue your education.”

Traditional woman

His wife found adjusting to English life most difficult because she had no English and there was a lot to adjust to. “Culturally she is a traditional woman with a scarf, and when she sees on the main street on weekend nights women with less clothes, she says, ‘they don’t feel any cold! I want to touch their leg with my leg so I don’t also’.”

He laughs, but then he looks sad. “She used to cry a lot, talking to the moon. ‘This moon is the only common thing between Pakistan and the UK’.”

He says he also ran into his own internalised paternalism in the early years in Birmingham when he found himself expecting the type of obedience from his sons that he once gave to his own father. With advice from Dr Reynolds, “who is like a godmother to my sons”, he learned to be more relaxed, modelling good behaviour rather than demanding deference.

“The worst thing that happens to human beings is thinking ‘my motto and philosophy is final. We can’t change it’.”

He likes a lot of things about his life in Birmingham, and he is very thankful to the people there. Malala is now studying in Oxford, and he loves watching her living an independent life. He likes to go to friends’ houses to talk about politics. And every night he and his wife Toor Pekai go for a walk together. “And we fight because I walk so fast and she walks so slow.”

But he misses Swat. “Every night in my dreams I used to go back to Pakistan, and in my dreams each time I would tell myself ‘this time it is not a dream, it is a reality’ and again it would be a dream...I was so tired of my dreams.”

Never happen

Malala was the first to suggest they return for a visit, but he kept trying to dissuade her, saying they should wait until things were totally safe. “She said ‘if you think that there will be an ideal time to go back it will never happen’.’”

So they went back in March of this year, and were soon sitting in a room with 40 women’s rights activists.

“They were telling Malala, ‘you are such a huge inspiration to all of us. Your very presence in Islamabad is a huge thing for all of us, and you have raised up our morale sky high because you are here in Pakistan’.”

He would like the family to return to live there some day. He thinks it could be important for the cause of girls’ education. That’s still the cause that motivates him.

The title of his book is Let her Fly. Someone wrote to him recently and said, “Malala has already flown, why do you say ‘let her fly?’” He laughs. “Let her fly means let every girl fly, in every corner of the world. Let every girl fly.”

Back in the Swat Valley in March they landed on the helipad from which Malala was airlifted to Peshawar years before. On that terrible day his wife was standing on their rooftop watching a helicopter leave with their severely injured daughter.

“She removed the scarf from her head, and spoke to God and said, ‘we didn’t accept any security guard, you are our security guard, and you have to protect her and you have to bring my girl back to me as she was.’ These were her words to God.”

Same helipad

When they returned to the same helipad all those years later they cried.

“It was a miracle coming back to the same place with this wholeness of family. I remember when Malala was in Birmingham and we were in Islamabad, all of a sudden my oldest son burst into tears and said, ‘we were five at our lunch and our breakfast and now we were four’ and we all cried with him.

“But that moment when we were all together looking to the outward view of Swat and the mountains…it was like a beautiful dream.”

Let Her Fly by Ziauddin Yousafzai is out now

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