In an exclusive interview with Asia Times, Ziauddin Yousafzai discusses his memoir, feminism, Malala’s future prospects and Pakistan’s fight against religious extremism
Malala was shot at by the Taliban in 2012 owing to her advocacy for girls’ education in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The family has since settled in the United Kingdom, where Malala was operated on after the attack. She is currently studying at Oxford University.
In 2014, Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize along with India’s Kailash Satyarthi.
The father-daughter duo co-founded the Malala Fund in 2013, a global organization dedicated to girls’ right to education. The priority countries are Afghanistan, Brazil, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey.
In an exclusive interview with Asia Times, Ziauddin Yousafzai discussed his memoir, feminism, Malala’s future prospects and Pakistan’s fight against religious extremism.
What prompted you to write ‘Let Her Fly’?
It was Malala’s idea. In “Let Her Fly” I share stories from my life and experiences as a son, brother, father, and of course as a teacher as well.
The idea of the book was to give people the background of where Malala comes from. Many have no knowledge of the conflict in Swat and most people don’t know why Malala was shot by the Taliban or what her activism was like before the attack.
The book gives insight into my family’s story and provides the backdrop to Malala’s activism.
In addition to providing the background to Malala’s struggles, the book also discusses progressive gender roles. Would you dub it a guideline for aspiring male feminists in our part of the world?
You are absolutely spot on. People ask me what was special in the way I raised my daughter that she is so poised, courageous and smart. I tell people don’t ask me what I did, ask me what I did not do – I did not clip her wings.
People comment on the book’s title and ask, ‘Why do you say let her fly? She has already flown so high.’ People already know Malala’s story. So when I say ‘let her fly’, it’s a message to all fathers, brothers, men, women, everyone, to let the girls fly.
Every girl should have the right to education – full, complete, quality education. Every girl should have the right to work, the right to be herself [and] most importantly, every girl should have the right to choose her future.
You write in the book that you first heard the word ‘feminism’ after moving to the UK ‘after having lived it for 40 years’. Why do you think so many are afraid of the label?
I think people are afraid of change. We have divided our wonderful world into East and West. People are scared to “follow the West”.
I just think people in the West are better at defining things, and creating these labels. Because we’ve had many of the feminist values in our part of the world, but for some people the word feminism is too hard.
When I talk about feminism, I mean complete gender equality, social equality and equal opportunity.
You mention in the book that while growing up Malala said she wanted to be the prime minister of Pakistan. Does she still have those aspirations?
Well, she is a lot more discreet now. Right now she is focused on completing her Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. Once she is done with that she plans to continue working for education for girls around the world.
There still are 130 million girls out of school around the world, but because of Malala’s advocacy, global leaders have started paying more attention to the problem and are spending more money on their education.
This really encourages Malala in her struggle. And her plan is to continue the work the Malala Fund is doing and reach out to more and more girls still deprived of their right to education.
Malala Fund has of course reached out to girls across the world. Are there any Pakistan specific programs lined up?
Of course, charity begins at home and Pakistan is our first home. More than 60% of our funds have been spent in Pakistan.
A state of the art school has been built in Shangla, with the help of Malala’s Nobel Peace Prize money via the Malala Fund. We also have projects in Mingora lined up.
We have a network called Gulmakai champions, which are local organizations in different countries dedicated to advocacy of girls’ education. We have 26 Gulmakai champions around the world and seven of these are in Pakistan – most notably in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and South Punjab.
Despite the Malala Fund being engaged in so much work in Pakistan, you get accusations of working on a western agenda. Does the backlash at home have any negative impact on you?
Of course, we are humans. It does affect us, but it doesn’t affect our mission or our resilience. When it comes to dealing with trolls, Malala is stronger than me. She doesn’t even go through the negative comments written about her.
But this isn’t just about us. If you think about the broader picture of our country, this is what everyone is doing to one another in Pakistan. This rot is especially prevalent in the education sector, which is one reason why Pakistan is struggling on the education front.
However, I personally believe that those who are abusing us today will pray for us decades from now. Their children will pray for us. I believe in positive revenge.
After multiple military operations against the Taliban in recent years, do you feel the fight against religious extremism is being won in the Swat Valley and other parts of Pakistan?
There are two ways to fight against religious extremism and Talibanization.
One way is to fight like we did, to raise the voice against Taliban at a time when the government and the state were actually promoting and imposing it on the people of Swat.
The second is the state’s way to deal with extremism, with all its power and resources. For instance, nothing has been done on the points of the [counter-terror strategy] National Action Plan – neither by the previous government nor this one.
The militant organizations continue to be the blue-eyed people for the state.
But yes, there is a lot of difference in the current situation and what it was a decade ago, when 400 schools were bombed. We used to see dead bodies every day. Thank God, for the past two years we haven’t seen targeted killings in Swat.
But having said that, what is happening in the country is largely disappointing. For instance, the mysterious killing of [police officer] Tahir Dawar or the killing of [Awami National Party leader] Haroun Bilour during the election campaign.
When it comes to women’s rights, education and the fight against religious extremism, what hopes do you have with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf government?
What was encouraging for me was Imran Khan’s 11-point agenda that he had developed for his election manifesto, in which education was a top priority. Let’s see how it works, because political parties say one thing before the elections and do something different after being elected.
If they stick to that 11-point agenda, I think a big change will come. If it doesn’t materialize and they change their priorities for their populist goals, then they may rule for some years but there will be no substantial change on the ground.
There should be an education emergency in Pakistan. It’s a shame that after Nigeria, Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school children.
If Khan invests in education, especially girls’ education, I think we will see Pakistan become a great country.
From your forum, I would like to convey to the government that Malala would always be there and I would always be there if the government needs our support for the cause of education in Pakistan.
We are not about politics, we are just about education.