Opinion

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.

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    Pakistani girls and boys hold pictures of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai in Karachi, Pakistan, Oct. 13. Malala was shot by the Taliban last week and is now in a hospital in England recovering. Op-ed contributor Qanta A. Ahmed writes that without support from men in her life, 'Malala may never have pursued a life of activism.'
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Malala Yousafzai’s courage has captured the world’s attention, and so should the courage of her father, Zia.

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.

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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.

Pakistan’s own Constitution follows these same ideals, mandating education for every child. The Taliban’s bans on education in regions under its control directly defy Pakistani law – and nearly 1,500 years of Islam. Their denial is nothing short of heresy.

Even Saudi Arabia – origin of Islam, spiritual epicenter of Sunni Islam, and now following orthodox Wahabiism – subscribes to the value of educating girls and women.

I was hired in Saudi Arabia as a senior physician to teach Saudi men and women medicine while I treated Saudi patients. The kingdom mandates education for every Saudi child through age 18, with many girls pursuing higher education.

Saudi women made history this summer as two female athletes competed in the Olympics. It was the Saudi father of judo athlete Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani who trained her and fueled her ambition to compete. Himself a judo referee, he aggressively defended his daughter’s right to compete. Such are the Muslim fathers that Islam inspires.

Documentary filmmaker and women’s health advocate Taraneh Salke has known for a long time that men are essential to finding solutions to extremism and misogyny. Her film “Where are the Men?” shows how her work in rural Afghanistan directly engaged Afghan men to advance women’s health and development.

Many Afghan women require men’s permission for the most basic activities: to leave the house, seek healthcare, or use contraceptives. Afghanistan has some of the highest maternal mortality and fertility rates in the world.

Ms. Salke identified the most critical and deeply-rooted obstacles to family planning to be uninformed Afghan men. Through her foundation, Family Health Alliance, she trained male health providers, doctors, and nurses. The program’s success has led to policy changes in Afghanistan that include men in family planning and reproductive health training.

Men could be invited to advocate for girls’ education in a similar structure, and so can boys, as they get schooling.

Malala is now being treated in England’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, the first medical school my father took me to see when selecting my university some 25 years ago. She is in good hands. Let us give her – and the supportive men in her life – the hand they deserve, and let Pakistani men and women work together for the rights of all girls and women.

Qanta A. Ahmed is the author of In the Land of Invisible Women,” detailing her life in Saudi Arabia. She is associate professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Follow Dr. Ahmed on Facebook, Twitter (@MissDiagnosis), and her Huffington Post blog.

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