The men behind schoolgirl Malala
It’s important to remember Pakistani men who support their daughters as Malala’s father does. Zia Yousafzai is a champion of his daughter's education and activism. My father moved our family from Pakistan to England to help support my schooling. It's the Muslim thing to do.
Malala Yousafzai’s courage has captured the world’s attention, and so should the courage of her father, Zia.Skip to next paragraph
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The 14-year-old Malala was shot point blank by a male Pakistani Taliban operative Oct. 9 because of her activism for girls’ education. Since the age of 11, she has been advocating for girls and against Taliban terrorism and lethal misogyny in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where the Taliban once banned girls’ schooling. She’s now recovering at a hospital in England – suddenly an icon for girls and women around the globe.
As people pray and hope for her progress (she’s improving, according to news reports), it’s important to remember the ranks of Pakistani men who support their daughters as Malala’s father does. These are the Pakistani men we never read about and most of us will never know, but whose support is vital in standing up for the rights of girls and women.
Without them, Malala may never have pursued a life of activism. Her father was her champion for schooling. An educator himself, Mr. Yousafzai accompanied his daughter on nearly all of her public interviews and appearances. He now states he is merely a caretaker for a national treasure, recognizing how precious Malala is to her entire nation.
Her teachers included men. Her journey to school, often in difficult terrain and bad weather, was accomplished by a male bus driver (a courageous activity, given the resistance to girls’ education in that part of Pakistan; indeed, she was shot in the bus on her way home from school). When she was attacked, Pakistani military men transported her to medical care.
Many Pakistani men are not the misogynists of the Taliban. They are my father, my grandfather, my brothers, cousins, friends, colleagues, protectors, and teachers.
Malala was shot because of the power of her voice, something she discovered within herself at an early age and that her parents, including her father, nurtured from the start. I would find my public voice only after I published my first book, “In the Land of Invisible Women,” about my experiences as a doctor in Saudi Arabia. But I reached that moment because my father especially pushed me toward a rigorous and ultimately American education.
At Malala’s age, my father was orphaned of his father, who was a headmaster and scholar. My father was left to support his siblings and illiterate mother. A refugee from India in the newly formed Pakistan, he sometimes collected firewood to help make ends meet. Once stability arrived, despite poverty, my father also pursued scholarship.
My own childhood was much more privileged than his, or Malala’s. My father exchanged the dusty Punjab to provide me the playing fields of England and keys to the classical British education he so admired. I was educated at Bablake, one of the oldest schools in England, founded in 1344 by a woman, Queen Isabella.
Both my father and physician mother urged me on to a career in medicine. They believed I was as deserving of schooling as my brothers, and that education was my Muslim responsibility to pursue.
Frequently my father reminded me of the prophet Muhammad’s saying that a Muslim must seek knowledge even if it means traveling to China to get it. The hadith – a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet – also records that Muslim men who “provide well” for their daughters (including education) are best loved by God. This reflects the value Islam places on equal rights for all children.