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Toor Pekai, the mother of Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, says she left school at a young age when she found herself the only girl in the classroom

Never too late

Malala’s mother reveals she has returned to school, to learn to read and write

By Paola Totaro on October 8, 2015

Malala Yousafzai’s mother, Toor Pekai, has spoken publicly for the first time, revealing that she has returned to school to learn to read and write — and is nagged incessantly by her daughter to do her homework.

Flanked by her husband, Ziauddin, Toor Pekai Yousafzai joined filmmaker and anthropologist Samar Minallah Khan at the Women in the World Summit in London on the third anniversary of the brutal attack on her daughter.

Speaking through an interpreter, she told a cheering audience that she left school at a young age when she found herself the only girl in the classroom, but that she is now happy and proud to be learning to read and write, and is learning English too.

“I love it very much. I enjoy reading and writing and learning, but when I come home and they have given me homework I put my bag in the corner — I say ‘I can’t be bothered,’” she laughed. “But then Malala comes home and says ‘where is your bag, have you done your homework,’ and I want to say ‘Oh it’s a bit hard!’”

The Yousafzai family are the subject of a soon-to-be released documentary by Davis Guggenheim about their new life in the UK. In a clip shown at the WITW Summit, Malala revealed, in a poignant moment, that being at school in England was sometimes difficult for her: “I find it hard to make friends. And don’t feel comfortable showing my legs … my skirt is much longer,” she said.

“My life is different to the other girls and I wonder what the other girls think of me. Some of the girls have had boyfriends. Some of them have broken up and even have new ones,” she said.

Tina Brown, founder and CEO of the WITW Summit, said she was profoundly moved by Toor Pekai’s decision to speak on such an emotional day. “So far, she has said nothing, and yet she has been a noble force in Malala’s life, as has her father.”

Toor Pekai revealed that she did not learn about her daughter’s shooting immediately, believing initially that she had had an accident. She said she had never contemplated the possibility that harm might come to Malala, and when she understood her daughter had been shot, she felt both horror and enormous sadness for the mothers of the attackers. “It was heartbreaking, it was the most difficult, terrible thing and I just couldn’t imagine what had happened to her. God helped me to get over it but still, when I remember it is very hard.”

“I was very sad and upset about what happened to Malala and upset for the mothers of the men who did it … mothers whose sons attacked a child.”

Malala, her mother said, was always a talkative and feisty girl who came home from school to talk about education and its importance for young women. “She used to say ‘I can’t go back to the days they buried girls alive — I want to speak, I want to progress’. How could I stop a girl like her speaking out?”

Toor Pekai said that in her culture, especially in moments of disagreement or animosity, women are respected. If there was a knock on the door at night in such circumstances, she would always answer or send Malala: “I never imagined someone would hurt a child.”

Malala’s father recalled that his own parents had encouraged his education but never spoke about educating his sisters. As the father of a daughter, he had wanted to make sure that his own daughter was treated equally and that education gave girls “wings to fly”.

Malala, he said, has lost hearing, had many operations, but was always courageous and uncomplaining in her long rehabilitation. She received straight As in her exams and appears to be recovering mentally well too, he said.

Western parenting styles, observed his wife, appear to her to be loving and attentive, perhaps even a little too much so: “In our culture, our society, we leave children to other people to watch them too … there is a lot of love and passion in this country,” she said.

“Children learn from what we as parents do, not what we teach,” added her husband.

“I respect my sisters, I respect my wife: I feel more powerful when she is here beside me. There are 66 million girls not in education in the world. My message is that education for everyone must be our mission, our top goal.”