The Ms. Q&A: Ziauddin Yousafzai’s Giving Girls Around the World Every Opportunity a Boy Would Have

“I was encouraging Malala not just to be an educated girl, but to be a girl who is a girl known by her own name.

The Ms. Q&A: Ziauddin Yousafzai Is Determined To Give Malala Every Opportunity a Boy Would Have
Ziauddin and Malala Yousafzai at a ministerial meeting with Afghanistan in
New York in September 2013. (GPE/Sarah Beeching/Flickr)

Ziauddin Yousafzai is known around the world for being the father of Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. He’s a Pakistani educator and has been advocating for girls education for decades. After Malala survived a Taliban attack for her own activism, Ziauddin joined her in creating the Malala Fund for girls education. He also serves as a United Nations special advisor on global education.

This interview with Ziauddin Yousafzai was conducted by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University (GIWPS). It originally appeared on GIWPS‘s Seeking Peace podcast.

Read the full episode transcript. Listen to the episode here:

The Ms. Q&A: Ziauddin Yousafzai Is Determined To Give Malala Every Opportunity a Boy Would Have
Melanne Verveer. (World Bank / Flickr)

Ziauddin Yousafzai: It is a great pleasure and honor to be speaking with you. I tell people that being a daughter’s father and especially Malala’s father—I feel so honored and so grateful.

Melanne Verveer: [Malala] is just a remarkable young woman. She often talks about the fact that you were determined to give her every opportunity that a boy would have in your society.

How did you proceed? Did you get questioned by other men in the community where you were living in Pakistan?

Yousafzai: Ah, yes. In the beginning when I was encouraging Malala and not just to be an educated girl, but to be a girl who is a girl known by her own name.

I had five sisters and none of my five sisters had an opportunity to receive education. And at that time, we hardly had any school for girls. But also, my parents did not have any big dream for my sisters. They had very tall dreams for me because I was a boy and for my five sisters, their only dream was to get them married as early as possible. Coming from that patriarchal society, being in that patriarchal family, our people could see the change in my behavior.

I often tell the story—when Malala was born and she was hardly [a] few weeks after her birth—my cousin brought a family tree. And when I looked at the family tree, it was a long list for 400 years and they were all men. I picked up my pen and drew a line from my name, and wrote Malala. I could see the disapproval on his face that he was thinking of me, that I was a crazy man putting a girl name on a family tree.

So these were the things in the beginning that people did not like in me. But once they saw the impact of a girl and or activism, I think, later on [the] same people joined us.

Verveer: Such a graphic description of what it was like in terms of attitudes. You were teaching at an all girls school in Pakistan while Malala was growing up. Is that right?

Yousafzai: Yes. The school I started, it had a girls campus and a boys campus. In the beginning, girls and boys up to grade nine and 10 were together. But unfortunately, when Talibanization started, we had a pressure from those circles—that we must separate girls and boys. So at that stage in 2003, 2004, we had a girls high school and a boys high school.

Verveer: So when the Taliban took over, were girls still able to go to school?

Yousafzai: They discouraged girls … and then they started bombing schools, it’s quite a story.

In the beginning, in 2003, 2004, they started an FM radio and that was the beginning of Talibanization. They just started a heinous propaganda against girls education. The chief of the Taliban, he used to give sermons and speeches, and most often he started speaking against girls’ education. He wanted to demotivate parents to send their girls to school.

He used to say in his speeches, he used to name the girls, even on his FM radio, that, for example:

Khadija, Aisha—these girls from that particular area, they have left school in grade five, in grade seven. And I congratulate them because this education, modern education is un-Islamic. And these girls are very brave that they quit the school. And this will bring blessing to their families in this world and in the afterworlds.

These were the kind of things they were doing in the beginning.

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Later on, in 2007, [the] Taliban became very violent and they burned more than 400 schools. And in December 2008, they gave an announcement on their FM radio that no girl will be allowed to go to school. Old or young, no girl at all. And if she goes to school, the parents and the manager or the principal of the school will be responsible.

Verveer: Eventually Malala took a bullet for a girl’s right to go to school. And you lived through that harrowing experience not knowing if she would survive. And thank God she did. But it must have been just some horrible, horrible moment for you and the family.

Malala Yousafzai at the UN on Aug. 18, 2014. (UN Photo / Mark Garten)

Yousafzai: It was the most traumatic, the most tragic day in our life because that very day on October 9, 2012—it was a normal day, like all days in a sense that she took a half of the egg in the morning—and we had quite nice chat at our breakfast. She rushed to school because that was the second day of her examination. I went to school, and from school I went to the press club because I was the president of the school’s association and we were demonstrating a rally there. And being the president, I was the last speaker. So before my speech, I switched off my phone and meanwhile, my close friend received a call from my school and he was told that something happened. My friend told me that a school bus had been attacked. The most horrible news. My heart sank.

And I went to the podium. I spoke for a few minutes, and then I told the gathering that I had an emergency and I have to rush to the hospital. I was told on the phone that the school bus had been attacked and Malala and the two other girls had received bullets. I rushed to the hospital. When I saw Malala, I just kissed her on her forehead, on her cheeks and… I left my home with hope that in the afternoon I will go back home, but this never happened. From the press club, I went to the hospital in Mingora, from Mingora, she was flown in helicopter to Peshawar Army Hospital. And there she got the life-saving surgery.

Verveer: Well, it’s just a remarkable story that out of such a terrible tragedy she has survived and she’s gone on now to get her university degree from Oxford. You must be so proud of her. And she has vowed that she will continue the fight that she started when she spoke out there in Swat Valley that every girl should go to school. So you have stood by her. You have been her strongest support.

She has set up the Malala Fund. Can you tell us about the fund and what you are doing with her today?

Yousafzai: The girl who was speaking for 50,000 girls when [the] Taliban banned girls education in the Swat Valley is now standing up for 130 million girls all around the world and speaking for their right to education. She was unstoppable in Swat and she was unstoppable after the attack. Even in the hospital, she started conversations and recovered in the very early days. She was more resilient and braver.

She continued her mission. Together, we co-founded the Malala Fund. This fund, its vision is that every girl should have an access to quality education, that she may choose her future. Girls should learn and lead. The fund in the last five years has grown very strong. Now, we are working in almost eight countries. When Malala graduated from Oxford—she has taken charge as the Chair of the Fund. And I’m so proud of her that at such a young age she is leading a global nonprofit organization for girls’ education and her dream is to see every girl, every girl in every corner of the world in school.

Listen to other interviews with powerful women and their male allies on the Seeking Peace podcast.

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Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security seeks to promote a more stable, peaceful and just world by focusing on the important role women play in preventing conflict and building peace, growing economies and addressing global threats like climate change and violent extremism. GIWPS engages in rigorous research, hosts global convenings, advances strategic partnerships and nurtures the next generation of leaders.