Malala's Father Shares Lessons for Fathers to Empower Their Children
Updated: Mar 7, 2018
Original article: MariaShriver.com
Last month, I conducted an interview with Zia Yousafzai, former Swat Valley teacher, Co-founder of the Malala Fund and father of Nobel Prize laureate, Malala. With an infinitely determined voice, Yousafzai spoke of the importance of embracing our children for who they are and with an open mind, and that education for everyone is the antidote to achieving gender equality and freedom.
Best known as the father of the youngest Nobel Prize laureate, Zia’s journey from a rural village in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, now riddled by the Taliban, and his unconventional upbringing has set the stage in his own parenting of his two sons and daughter.
Although Yousafzai humbly condenses his credit for Malala’s global influence into two sentences, he doesn’t skip a beat in recognizing the root of where the shift in perspective began:
“People often ask me what I have done in my mentoring that has made Malala so bold and courageous, vocal and poised, and I tell them, ‘Don’t ask me what I did, ask me what I did not do. I didn’t clip her wings, that is all,’” he explained. “Growing up, my brother and I were always preferred over my sisters — we were even offered the better parts of the chicken to eat, but my father was scholarly and sent me to school.”
Early education was the kindling that left a lasting imprint on Yousafzai, and started the impassioned blaze to come. “The education changed me, but I’ve always been sensitive to discrimination of class and people who have been looked down upon,” he said, his voice amplified. “I thought differently.”
And Yousafzai knows that the war against patriarchal, Talibanized and tribal communities is only half of the equation when it comes to advocating for girls’ education. “In those regions of the world, girls are as free as butterflies until age twelve and then they can’t leave the house without a male escort,” he said, regretfully.
“There is a responsibility of men and boys to motivate one another by their actions. Household chores are not just for a woman or man; that’s wrong. My sons need to see me do things to help their mom and we need to lead by example.”
While many men and women of the Pakistani culture experience shame after birthing a daughter — a burdened sentiment she will carry well into adulthood — Yousafzai beamed with pride when he first set eyes on Malala, carving an altogether different path for her future. The proud father explained, “I’ve always appreciated my daughter, not just her academic or wise achievements, but even the way she spoke or performed.” He advised:
“Parents must appreciate the small merits of their children. They’re wise and smart so tell them that they are. Controlling them doesn’t work, so be open and believe in your children.”
Raised in a culture where daughters are often expected to be ‘seen and not heard,’ Yousafzai ensured that Malala would not only be seen but that her voice would have the freedom to reverberate as far as it would take her. “When Malala was small, I encouraged her to come and sit with me during meetings and join me in conversation when I had friends over,” he shared.
The revered teacher reflected on the children he was forced to leave behind in the Swat Valley after Malala was brutally shot in 2012, and revealed his recurring dream many nights, of reuniting with his students again in a safe environment, free of a Taliban presence.
“I have used education for emancipation,” he declared. “I use it to teach boys to unlearn the teachings of ‘obedience’ and ‘honor’ in the way it is taught over there.” He added, “When you’re a teacher and share your knowledge and the students share with you, that’s a happiness you can’t find anywhere else in the world. I miss those days in Swat Valley, and I lost that life.”
What hasn’t been lost is an unshakable purpose in Yousafzai’s life — his dedication to the Malala Fund which invests in local leaders and educators around the world, notably in Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan, providing assistance for Syrian refugees as well as scholarships for the girls kidnapped in 2015 by Boko Haram — in an effort to support girls’ access and rights to education. “The Malala Fund believes that basic education is important but secondary education allows them to fly and to be leaders within their communities, to really empower them,” he said with conviction.
“Malala and I went to Kenya where every girl in the school had her head shaved,” he said, still sounding surprised by the discovery. “When I asked the principal about it, he told me that the families had to decide on a universal hairstyle for the girls while at school and all of the girls agreed to shave their heads because they were so hungry to learn as much as they could each day that they didn’t want the time on their hair to be a distraction.” Just one of the many anecdotes that fuels the father and daughter duo on their continued mission for education equality.
When he’s not pouring every ounce of himself into his responsibilities at the Malala Fund, Yousafzai is busy and vigilant in taking cues from his children about the ways in which we can all become more aware and invested in our parenting capabilities.
“Love should be more valued than anything else with our children,” he said, his voice softening. “You should not lose the love and respect for yourself in the hearts of your children, and vice versa.”
Zia Yousafzai’s adoration and unconditional support of his daughter’s burgeoning, ‘unclipped’ wings helped a young, tenacious Malala to mature and unfold — in the face of adversity — into an even more resilient young woman and symbol for equal rights. The teacher said, “We have two choices in life, to speak up or be silent, and after being shot, Malala spoke even louder.”