Ziauddin Yousafzai: ‘I will fight for women’s rights, for girls’ education, for women’s empowerment.’
Ziauddin Yousafzai founded a school in the Swat valley, Pakistan, where girls and boys were educated together. When his eldest child, Malala, was shot at point-blank range by the Taliban in 2012 in retaliation for her activism, the family relocated to Birmingham. In 2014, Malala was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Let Her Fly is Ziauddin’s account of his life and his fight for the rights of all children to receive equal education, opportunities and social and political recognition.
Your life in the aftermath of the attack on Malala is well known; what did you want to add in this book?
People may think that most of my story was already told, in Malala’s book four years ago, and that was one part of my life, a daughter’s father. But I was the brother of five sisters who had never been to school, the husband of a wife and the father of two sons. This book tries to cover the bigger picture of my life and the lessons I have learned. I have tried to honestly share them with readers so they can see how this transformation happened for me – from being a member of a patriarchal society to the kind of person I am now.
That journey started when you were very young, didn’t it?
In my early childhood, for some years, and like all other brothers and men in patriarchy, I accepted the situation for women like my mother or my sisters. I was the blue-eyed boy of my family – if I had been the sixth daughter to my parents, or if I had been one of my five sisters, the world would have never heard of me. Not even the world at large, but my own community.
I was very conscious of this discrimination after my school life, at 16 or 17. One of my cousins who was in a forced marriage was shot in an honour killing accident and I was thinking, why are five of my sisters not going to school? This was the end of your life, in a way, of your social life, because the only dream parents had for girls was, the earlier they married, the better. So those are the circumstances that made me conscious, made me stand against the social contract, which was anti-development, anti-rights of girls.
When you were a child, you developed a stammer. Do you think this affected the course you took?
I was dark in colour, not from a rich family, I had stammering problems, so I was bullied by some of my class fellows and by my cousins, and I was feeling very unhappy and angry. I became a person who hates all kinds of discrimination and injustice in society, whether it’s because of the colour of somebody, because of any physical impairment, physical deficiencies or social status. I became very conscious of all these discriminations and one of the worst was among the boys and girls. And that’s why it became my mission in life that I will fight for women’s rights, for girls’ education, for women’s empowerment.
You decided to become a teacher, taught for a while in the public education system, and then set up your own school. What was that like?
I thought, let me start a school of my own, I will have more freedom to practise the vision that I have. I started my school with 15,000 rupees – about £100. It was very meagre capital. But the big capital and the big power that I had was my passion, my conviction, my connection to the community. I was so happy that the school I started, with just three kids, had 1,100 students – 500 girls and 600 boys – by 2012.
It was a huge achievement, but what you couldn’t change was that the Taliban had by then taken control of the Swat valley and imposed a ban on female education. That must have been hard.
It was the most traumatic and fearful time of our lives. It was a horrible time for the 1.4 million people of Swat. The Taliban were so terrible, they were so cruel.
So it was the hardest time for all of us and especially for people like me who were speaking against the Taliban, speaking against the ban on girls’ education, condemning the bombing and the banning of the schools. I spent some nights in our friend’s house because I did not want to be killed in front of my family; I thought that if I die, I will die, but my family won’t be able to come out of this trauma if they’ve seen me being killed.
And then the worst moment, when Malala was shot in the head while she was travelling on the school bus.
The trauma that we had in 2012 when she was attacked is quite difficult to be free of completely. The girl who I love, the girl who was like my comrade and is loved by the whole family, her mother and the two boys – we had all almost lost her. Her survival is a miracle.
You visited Pakistan earlier this year. What was that like?
I just felt the soil of home. It was such an emotional moment. When we were going from Pakistan six years ago, it was a very bad situation and this time, when we were going back, we landed at the same helipad from where Malala was lifted as an injured and wounded girl. We landed all five of us. So this wholeness of family was a great feeling: on the same land, in the same place, near our home in the Swat valley. This is our dream: to go back and to return to work for education.
Do you think that will ever be possible?
I hope that the situation is getting better with every passing day. It is never perfect and it’s not perfect in any country now – every country has to strive for peace in their country, and in their communities.
Even this year, when we were going to Pakistan, it was Malala’s decision. I said, let’s wait for some time. She said, Aba, you will never have a perfect time to go back. Let’s go. We have to go. I was so proud of her. I said OK, I’m your father; for me, it will be very difficult if you go on your own and I’m not with you and the family’s not with you. So she took all of us back to Pakistan and I hope that she will take us again.
• Let Her Fly by Ziauddin Yousafzai is published by Ebury (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99