When 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head on her school bus by the Taliban, a devastating thought crossed her father’s mind: Was he to blame?
Malala’s dad, Ziauddin Yousafzai, had strongly encouraged his daughter to pursue an education in Pakistan, defying the Taliban order that girls should not go to school, but should stay silent, marry young, and obey their husbands.
“When something bad happens, an honest person asks himself, what was my role? I think this is natural. The day Malala was shot was the most difficult day of my life. In that moment, it came to my mind, yes, could I have done differently? Could I have stopped her? I asked my wife if I had done the right thing,” Ziauddin told Women in the World by phone from England, where the family now lives. “My wife said, ‘Yes, you did the right thing. You and Malala are fighting for education, for equality. You are standing for your rights.’”
His moment of doubt passed, but he and his wife had to wait in agony for a week, wondering if their daughter would wake up from a coma. When she did, her first words, scribbled with a pen, were about her dad. “Why have I no father?” she asked, fearing he could be dead.
Ziauddin’s influence on his daughter’s life runs deep. In the documentary He Named Me Malala, which has its global television premiere on Monday night on the National Geographic Channel, it is clear how he raised his daughter to shun the patriarchal, tribal notions of a girl’s role of subservience in society. A schoolteacher and outspoken critic of the Taliban, he sent Malala to school at a young age and urged her to talk about politics and topics often reserved for boys. “I tried my best to treat my daughter as myself,” he told Women in the World. “I gave her a lot of freedom.”
He encouraged Malala to stay in school when she entered her teenage years — a time when Pakistani girls are typically “stopped from going out of the home” and married off, he said. He recalled how a man once complained to Malala’s mother that Malala was showing herself in public, continuing to go to school. “He said, ‘Malala brings shame to the family. You should not be doing this.’ When my wife told me this, I said, ‘This is my family. He should not poke his nose into my family affairs.’” Now, the same man “is a big supporter of Malala,” Ziauddin said. “Change starts in the close family, then it goes to the extended family, then it spreads to towns and cities and countries.”
Thoughout her school years in the Swat Valley, Malala became increasingly upset about how the Taliban targeted and bombed schools for girls. When a BBC correspondent asked her father if a girl at his school would anonymously blog about the situation, Ziauddin asked Malala if she would be interested. She said yes. Later she appeared with her dad in a video by New York Times reporter Adam B. Ellick, showing her face and saying she wanted to become a doctor. She began speaking publicly at events, campaigning for education for girls. In October 2012, a gunman boarded her school bus, asked for her by name, and gunned her down. She was not expected to survive. She was flown to a hospital in Birmingham, England, for medical care, and her family followed. Doctors performed brain surgery, attaching a metal plate to her skull and a cochlear implant to restore hearing to her left ear. Part of her face remains paralyzed.
Malala has struggled to adjust to school in the West. “Just think of a young girl who was studying in a far-flung area of Pakistan and had never been together with girls from the U.K., whose country and culture is different,” Ziauddin said. In the film, Malala talks about how the girls at her high school in England are busy dating boys. “Most of them have boyfriends. Most of them have broken up with some of the boyfriends and found new ones,” she says. In her native Pakistan, there was no dating, just marriage. If a family had a television, the Taliban burned it. And if people spoke out against the Taliban, they got executed in the town square.
“It was quite hard in the beginning for Malala,” Ziauddin said of his daughter’s new life. “But I must give her credit. She is so resilient and such a smart girl, she was able to get used to her new environment and make friends.” In the film, Malala surfs the Internet and giggles about a favorite Pakistani cricket player and tennis star Roger Federer. She enjoys mini-golf, bowling, and “fighting with her brothers,” her father told Women in the World with a laugh. “She is the spirit of happiness in this house. This house is like a dungeon without her.” Malala has two younger brothers, also attending school in England. Malala’s mother, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, is getting educated as well, learning to read and write, she said last October at the Women in the World Summit in London.
Malala’s school has made a point of treating her “as a normal student,” Ziauddin said. When she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, that was the first time she addressed the school, he said. Now 18 years old, Malala is applying to college and is interested in Oxford University, among others, her father said. He added that he will feel sad when she leaves home, but also “very pleased” to see her move forward with her schooling. In describing his hopes for her, he recalled a trip he took with her to Islamabad before the attack. “We went to a function and she gave a talk as if she was my son. My dream for her then was that one day, I want to see Malala come here to Islamabad on her own to give this talk, no chaperone. She should be independent. When she goes to college, she will be independent. She will be on her own. We will be good.”
Ziauddin grew up with five sisters, none of whom were given the opportunity for an education in Pakistan. They were married off, and never had an identity of their own. “No girl was given an education when I was a schoolboy,” he said. “I saw so much discrimination. Many men in society, they are comfortable with what is going on. Few people stand for change. Whatever I saw wrong in my early life, I wanted to respond with equality and justice. My goal was not to condemn, but to change.”