What did Malala's father do for her? "I did not clip her wings"

by Katie Nguyen | Katie_Nguyen1 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 25 March 2014 17:21 GMT

Pakistani teenage activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai listens to Syrian refugee girls who live in Jordan, during her visit to Al Manara Social Development centre in Amman February 19, 2014. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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"I'm one of the few fathers who is known by his daughter, and I'm proud of it," says Ziauddin Yousafzai

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Daughters are deemed so worthless in patriarchal parts of Pakistan that fathers are usually known by their sons.

Not so for Ziauddin Yousafzai, a teacher whose teenage daughter, Malala, was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in 2012 for demanding education for girls.

Since surviving the attack on her school bus in the Swat valley, Malala has become a symbol of defiance against the Islamist militants who brought fear to the area, flogging girls, tearing down posters that featured women and killing musicians.

Father and daughter have now taken their message all over the world.

"I'm one of the few fathers who is known by his daughter, and I'm proud of it," Yousafzai said during a speech at the 2014 TED conference in Vancouver this month.

He conjured up for the audience the plight of millions of girls born into deeply conservative societies which favour boys.

"Right from the very beginning, when a girl is born, her birth is not celebrated. She is not welcomed - either by father or mother," he said.

"A mother is very uncomfortable having a girl child. When she gives birth to the first girl child, the first daughter, she is sad. When she gives birth to the second daughter, she is shocked … when she gives birth to a third daughter she feels guilty like a criminal."


Rather than starting school at the age of five, a girl is kept at home. Until she is 12, she is relatively free to play and "move around the streets like a butterfly".

But when she turns 13, she is forbidden to leave home without a male to escort her, Yousafzai said.

"She is no more a free individual. She becomes the so-called honour of her father, of her brothers, and of her family. If she transgresses the code of that so-called honour, she could even be killed," he said.

The honour system is a burden for both men and women, Yousafzai said, citing the example of a male acquaintance forced to migrate to the Gulf where he could earn enough to support seven sisters back home because he refused to face the "humiliation" of any of them learning a skill and finding a job.

Girls also suffer under the yoke of obedience - expected to submit to the will of their fathers, brothers, family and community, including marrying men they don't love, chosen for them by their family.    

"It is the irony of the situation that (a mother) teaches the same lesson of obedience to her daughters and the same lesson of honour to her sons and this vicious cycle goes on," Yousafzai said.


Malala, now 16, was raised differently.

In a warm tribute to his daughter, Yousafzai described how even before she was born, he had decided to name her after a legendary freedom fighter in Afghanistan.

"When Malala was born - believe me, to be honest, I don't like newborn children," Yousafzai said to laughter in the audience. "But when I went and I looked into her eyes, I was extremely honoured."

Unlike many girls in the Swat valley, Malala was promptly enrolled in school at the age of four.

"It's a big event for the life of a girl. Enrolment in a school means recognition of her identity and her name. Admission to a school means that she has entered the world of dreams and aspirations where she can explore her potential for her future life," Yousafzai said.

"I used education for emancipation. I taught my girl students to unlearn the lesson of obedience. I taught my boy students to unlearn the lesson of so-called pseudo-honour."

Yousafzai also described how the world turned into a "big, black hole" the day Malala was shot at point-blank range. She had started her campaigning by writing a blog in 2009 outlining how the Taliban prevented girls from going to school.

Malala had to undergo reconstructive surgery on her skull after the attack. Despite the pain she was in, she never complained, Yousafzai said.

"People ask me what was special in my mentorship that made Malala so bold, so courageous, so vocal, so poised," he said.

"I tell them, 'Don't ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do'. I did not clip her wings, and that's all'."

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