SHOT by the Taleban when she was 15, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize when she was 17, Malala Yousafzai is an extraordinary activist for the rights of girls. Meet the man who first awakened her social conscience
As his daughter lay in hospital gravely ill after having been shot in the head at close range by a Taleban gunman, Ziauddin Yousafzai asked himself a question: “What will she think of me?” In the horror of what had happened on that school bus – a girl targeted deliberately, several of her friends also injured – Yousafzai contemplated his role as her father.
His daughter, Malala, had been writing a blog for the BBC Urdu service about life under the Taleban from the age of 11. Originally, a teacher had been sought to describe life in Pakistan’s Swat Valley since the Taleban arrived in 2007, but no one was willing. Other than Malala. She had used a pseudonym at first, but it didn’t take long before she was identified. Still she continued to express her views about the rights of girls, all with her father’s blessing.
What, if his beloved daughter woke up, would she make of his decision to let her speak out and so endanger her life, Ziauddin asked himself.
“My English is horrible,” he says with a smile and I’m caught off guard. “Malala teases me about it.” Teasing is a Yousafzai family sport.
He pauses, before continuing to describe his feelings in that moment of crisis. “I was thinking, ‘What will she be thinking?’ I was clear in my thinking that I was an activist; she got inspired, and it was her choice to become an activist. I didn’t stop her. I was thinking ‘What will she be thinking of that?’
Ziauddin describes the same moment in a scene from a new documentary film, which will be released next month.
“This documentary is an answer to that question – when she says, ‘He named me Malala, he didn’t make me Malala.’ I think she gives me a certificate that I shouldn’t be feeling guilty because the choice to be an activist was hers, really hers.”
Born to a Pashtun family in a remote village in the Swat Valley, Ziauddin Yousafzai’s love of education was fostered by both his father, a teacher and local Imam, and his mother. “My mother was illiterate. She couldn’t go to school. My sisters didn’t go to school either. But my mother believed in education for her sons. She saw many men and boys change their lives through education. She used to tell me a lot of stories about Mr So-and-so in the area who is a banker now, and Mr So-and-so who is a doctor now.”
The inspiration worked. Despite having been bullied for his stammer, Ziauddin applied himself to his studies and did well. “A stage came when I couldn’t become a doctor and my father wanted me to become a clerk and not to go on to graduation or post-graduation. But I said, ‘No, you can’t stop me.’” He grins and it’s clear he’s still proud of that decision, of following his sense of what was right, of his determination. It reminds me of his daughter.
“I communicated to my father that I would do it on my own, borrowing money from people, working hard; whatever it took I would get my education. Many friends have supported me in my education, I’m thankful to them. My father got disappointed but it was he who gave me the love of education in the beginning so he had no power to stop me.”
Ziauddin found it “horrible” that his five sisters weren’t sent to school. After graduation, and by this time married to Toor Pekai, who also had never been educated, he devoted himself to building a school where girls and boys would be taught. It was founded three years before his first child, Malala, was born on 12 July, 1997. By the time Malala was in her teens there were more than a thousand pupils attending classes. Ziauddin had long spoken out about the importance of education and he continued to do so. Activism is, he says, “in my DNA”.
“I was simply an ordinary teacher, a small community activist. But I had the strongest feeling of collective responsibility, of social responsibility. When your basic rights are at stake and people deprive you of your basic human rights, you must fight. It is very simple.”
Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, He Named Me Malala, is an intimate portrait of the Yousafzai family. There are chats around the kitchen table in the family home in Birmingham, bickering with hilarious younger brothers, Kushal and Atal, homework pressures (they’ve paid off, Malala recently gained ten GCSEs, six A-stars and four As) and some proper teenage blushes over the mention of the delectable Roger Federer. Guggenheim, the Oscar-winning director of climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth, spent time with the Yousafzai family over 18 months. His intention was to make a film that captured the unique intimacy and bond that exists between Ziauddin and his daughter. He has done that, and yet something about their relationship remains inexplicable, perhaps unknowable.
Even at the tender age of 18, studying for A-Levels and contemplating which university might appeal (Oxford and Stanford are in the running, according to reports), Malala Yousafzai has already lived an extraordinary life. For her father, although he could not have anticipated the brutality of the Taleban (the horrors of the massacre of 132 children in their school in Peshawar last December were unimaginable then), or that his family would end up exiled in the UK, he sensed something of the potential of his daughter even in her earliest youth.
“Right from the very beginning,” he says, “the way she talked, the way she took an interest, her critical appreciation of different things and her critical comment on different things; it was very amazing. And surprising. She was very mature in her thinking.
“In a family, to a father or mother’s activism children have different responses: some children say, ‘He’s wasting his time I want to live a normal life,’ but there are others who see what their mother or father is doing and they think it is wonderful, amazing. Like father, like daughter.”
The bond between them is unique, of course, but culturally it is very significant. Where Ziauddin is from, sons are celebrated (welcomed with gunfire no less) and educated, daughters are not. But he always felt passionately that Malala could be whatever she wanted to be. “I remember the very first day when she was born and I looked into her eyes. Really, I was feeling very proud that day that I was the father of a daughter. Later on, my cousin brought the family tree. It was a pedigree of forefathers of many, many generations. No woman was there. I wrote Malala’s name after my name. I was writing her role – that she would exist, not only physically but this girl who is born, whose name is Malala, will exist socially, politically and as an independent, individual person. She will never only be known by her father, or as a sister, or as a wife; she will be Malala.”
Ziauddin named his daughter after Malalai of Maiwand, the great Afghan heroine, a shepherd’s daughter who marched on to the battlefield waving her headscarf in the air to inspire her fellow tribesmen to defeat the British Army in the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1880. “Malalai was known in her own right and that was the vision, the dream,” he says. “I wanted somebody in my family as a daughter to be known by herself.” He smiles. “And I am known by her now.”
And, of course, it is true. Ziauddin accompanies Malala on her travels. They have set up the Malala Fund, which through advocacy and investment aims to enable girls to complete 12 years of education. He attends conferences as an adviser to Gordon Brown, the UN’s special envoy on global education, but in addition to all of this, before it perhaps, he is Malala’s father.
Guggenheim’s documentary is punctuated with shots of Malala and Ziauddin walking towards conference rooms packed with eager audiences waiting to hear the teenager speak. Outside the doors through which she will be ushered are throngs of – almost always – men in suits, at least twice her age, lanyards around their necks, mobile phones in their hands. Malala is a phenomenon, a spokesperson, a hero.
As I watched the film, it struck me again and again how terrifying it must once have been for her to have to carry such attention and expectation. It’s so easy to forget that she’s still just a girl, never mind one whose physical wellbeing has been shattered by a bullet which smashed through her skull. Malala has huge influence and power but, as her father, does Ziauddin see that her role could be a burden?
“This depends on your thinking,” he says, with a tilt of his head. “Being surrounded by cameras, although welcomed and supported by many fans like a celebrity, really sometimes you feel ‘What’s this about?’ But then you look beyond it and think, this is all for a bigger cause, this is for millions of children around the world, it is for the 66 million girls who are out of school. This life, these cameras, these speeches – they will contribute, they will help those girls access quality education and they will help hundreds of thousands of Syrian children in camps in Jordan.” He speaks with utter conviction; there’s nothing harsh, but there is a forcefulness. He speaks about himself and Malala interchangeably, they are as one.
“From the outside it looks very difficult but for us it has become a normal routine of our life. Just thinking of the sufferings of millions of people because of wars and conflicts around the world, in Syria and in Iraq, the many displaced people in Pakistan, this is not one family’s story. It is the story of millions of people all over the world who are going through trials and tribulations. If this documentary or our activism, though it is sometimes at the cost of our normal life, can stir the conscience of the world’s leaders to come forward and help resolve these issues, to make sure that every child in every corner of the world can go to school, I think it’s a small price to pay.”
The documentary isn’t just about Malala and Ziauddin’s mission. There’s the rest of the family to take into account. Malala’s brothers, Kushal and Atal clearly love their sister but view her hardworking dedication to both her homework and her cause with scepticism that seems entirely fitting for younger brothers with sport and iPads and TV on their minds. The one figure who remains resolutely in the background is Toor Pekai, Ziauddin’s wife and Malala’s mother. Supportive of her husband and daughter, I wonder how easy it can be for her, having had no access to education, to watch the inexorable rise of her daughter’s global profile and purpose.
“She used to ask me if I felt any deficiency in my life, being married to an illiterate wife?” he says, and I almost wince. “Yes,” he says. “She used to ask me, and for the first time I am sharing with you. I used to tell her, ‘Ah, but you are so wise,’ her wisdom always inspired me and she always taught me through her wisdom. So I say, ‘Forget about it now – I am proud of you – and now we must concentrate on our children’s education.’ I think if she had been given the opportunity in childhood, as the daughter, so the mother. Malala’s mother is as intelligent as her daughter but she didn’t have the opportunity.”
The day is nearing an end, but Ziauddin looks like a man who could talk for hours. Enthusiastic, engaged, I notice that I’ve forgotten all the hoopla of getting here. The secret location, the burly security men downstairs. This is ordinary life for Ziauddin, but it’s not normal. I wonder what he hopes for his daughter, as an activist, but also as a woman.
“Both hopes are very important. As a change maker in the world I wish her to be highly educated in whatever field she chooses. This is the first priority. After completing her education I think she should be an activist for education giving time to her Malala Fund, supporting advocacy, investment and amplifying the voices of other girls and men who work for education and women’s empowerment.” He smiles. “This is one dream. I can’t dream for her further – she might want to become a politician or work in an international NGO. My only dream will be – it is my wish I mean – that she should be a change maker. Change matters. If she makes a change, a real change, not just a media change, I will be happy.”
And as a woman, a person as well as an activist?
“My dream for her as a daughter is that she must exist in our life because we love her, we pray to god that she lives for a long, long, long time and that one day she will have children and a husband and I will love her children and we will gossip. And my sons will have sons and daughters too. I want extension of my family because a stage comes when you want small kids around. I’m not at that stage now, but it will come soon. In 10 years I will feel in dire need of small kids.”
Getting ready to leave, I suddenly wonder whether Ziauddin learned anything about his daughter when he watched her on screen, or if he knows her like he knows himself, as it sometimes seems when he talks. “Ah,” he says. “Seeing her on screen was not new for me because I’ve been seeing her on screen for a long time, since we were in Pakistan even. But hearing her tell the story was surprising for me, and at times it was hard as well.
“When she was asked if she had forgiven the guys [who shot her] I wondered how she would answer. And she was silent. Again Davis asked. And she said, ‘I mean it, I won’t say anything.’ It tells volumes when she’s not saying anything. I saw a different meaning in her when I watched this.
“Coming back to life again after that tragic assassination attempt she had two choices – to keep silent and to live the life of a girl who goes to school and lives in a home or activism. She chose a different life and a difficult life. But, of course, the cause is big. If you are living for a cause bigger than you then you make some sacrifices. Also this sacrifice, no one imposed it on me. No one imposed it on her.”
• He Named Me Malala is in cinemas from 6 November