I come from Pakistan, a land so beautiful that for years, since moving to the UK, I have returned there in my dreams. It is a land known for its warm hospitality and rich culture. But it is also a land where men and women are not equal. Throughout my childhood and into my adolescence, I was viewed as being superior to my sisters. The women in my life, my mothers and my sisters, served me. I come from a family in which my gender made me special. This was not unusual. But I never wanted to be special for this reason. As a child, I accepted this status unchallenged, but as I grew up, I gained the confidence to question it, challenge it and finally got myself free of it.
By the time Malala was born I was a feminist in the way I lived my life, but I did not have the the terminology to describe this change. It is a valuable term that I only came to know of after living in the UK. For more than forty years, I had no idea what the word ‘feminist’ meant. When it was explained to me, I said, ‘Oh, I have been a feminist for most of my life, almost from the beginning!’. I was living that word instinctively, but not hearing it.
My wife and I have always wanted to raise our children to be the kind of people who will continue to fight for equality for their own generation and for generations to follow.
When I married Malala’s mother, Toor Pekai, and then when Malala arrived, I felt so privileged to be sharing my life with these precious females. The love I felt for them was enough to move mountains. I tell people now that when I applied the basic principle of gender equality to my own family, it changed my life. It changed my wife’s life. It changed my daughter’s life and it changed my sons’ lives.
Even though Malala was born into a patriarchal society, I was not worried that it would limit her in this world. As I looked at her lying in her cradle, I believed that she could do anything. I had faith in her and that was enough. I needed faith in my own position as her father too, and pledged to her and myself that as long as I was beside her, supporting her, believing in her, nothing could stand in her way. I look back and I see myself resolved and determined that these social norms we lived with in Pakistan, traditions with deep winding roots across hundreds of years of patriarchy, unconscious, unspoken, natural, would not cut her down. I was ready to be Malala’s shield whenever and wherever she needed me.
Whenever anybody asks me how Malala became who she is, I have often used the response ‘Ask me not what I did but what I did not do. I did not clip her wings.’ In Pakistan, I occasionally came across families who kept a bird, perhaps a dove, in their courtyard, and this bird was no longer able to fly. It would waddle around the dusty floor, lifting its head and moving it from one side to the other, but the vital ingredient in its life was gone. Somebody, no doubt a father or a brother, had taken some scissors to its primary feathers and clipped them so short that flight was no longer possible. It was an act of ownership over that poor defenceless creature, for entertainment or the desire to have an obedient pet, forced to live against its primal instinct of flight. When I say for Malala that ‘I did not clip her wings’ what I mean is that when she was small, I broke the scissors used by society to clip girls’ wings. I did not let those scissors near Malala. I wanted her to fly high in the sky, not scratch around in a dusty courtyard, grounded by social norms, and I would stand by her, protecting her, until she had the confidence and strength to fly high herself, no longer in need of protection.
I tell people now that when I applied the basic principle of gender equality to my own family, it changed my life.
For girls to grow up feeling truly equal, I say the same thing to all fathers, brothers, men and boys: ‘The world will not come to you, inside your home, and introduce your daughter or your sister to you, when she is still a child, as the next great woman, the next great scientist or politician, the next Malala. It is up to you as a father or a brother, and a mother, to be the first to accept and encourage potential in the girl you love. It is up to you to recognise her and to believe in her, that she can grow up to be these things. If you do not say that your children are the best and can work towards their dreams, then who will? Some fathers feel embarrassed or ashamed to believe in the empowerment of women. There are many men who are prepared to think differently about their daughters’ futures, but some men encourage their daughters’ freedom without owning the change in themselves. These fathers believe in equality, and yet they do not speak about it. But it needs to be shouted about because misogyny is still everywhere. Sometimes it is in jokes, sometimes it is in subtle casual comments but it all comes from the same place: a place where women are not seen as equal.
My attempt at being a different kind of father was not confined only to raising my daughter Malala. After her birth, we had two boys, Khushal, now 18 years old, and Atal now 14. I believe that boys and men everywhere should understand the ethos of equality; that gender alone does not bring privilege. In the case of patriarchal societies, where there is an ingrained cultural bias towards men, there is an even greater urgency for men to contribute to the fight for equality. This is how I wanted to raise my sons. When boys are aware of what girls face, when they are taught from infancy that it is their responsibility as they grow into young men to take measures to make the lives of girls and women easier, it is not patronising to girls and women, but rather I feel it offers much-needed support.
When I became a father to the boys, I defined my family – to myself and to the society in which we lived – as one that believed first and foremost in equality. We did not write on the walls of our house ‘All women and men are equal, all have freedom of speech,’ but families are like small institutions and our lives together echoed those values of equality. I was determined to raise a family in which all three children saw no preference between genders.
All around my boys were other boys and men who were schooled in the old ways, but I knew that if my sons saw me treating their mother and sister with respect and love, they would think that that way was the normal way. If they saw their mother’s voice was as valid as mine, and that there were no limits on their sister’s future, then surely this would set them on a different road themselves.
In this intimate and extraordinary memoir, Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Malala, gives a moving account of fatherhood and his lifelong fight for equality – proving there are many faces of feminism.
“Whenever anybody has asked me how Malala became who she is, I have often used the phrase. ‘Ask me not what I did but what I did not do. I did not clip her wings’”
For over twenty years, Ziauddin Yousafzai has been fighting for equality – first for Malala, his daughter – and then for all girls throughout the world living in patriarchal societies. Taught as a young boy in Pakistan to believe that he was inherently better than his sisters, Ziauddin rebelled against inequality at a young age. And when he had a daughter himself he vowed that Malala would have an education, something usually only given to boys, and he founded a school that Malala could attend.
Then in 2012, Malala was shot for standing up to the Taliban by continuing to go to her father's school, and Ziauddin almost lost the very person for whom his fight for equality began.
Let Her Fly is Ziauddin’s journey from a stammering boy growing up in a tiny village high in the mountains of Pakistan, through to being an activist for equality and the father of the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and now one of the most influential and inspiring young women on the planet.
Told through intimate portraits of each of Ziauddin’s closest relationships – as a son to a traditional father; as a father to Malala and her brothers, educated and growing up in the West; as a husband to a wife finally learning to read and write; as a brother to five sisters still living in the patriarchy – Let Her Fly looks at what it means to love, to have courage and fight for what is inherently right. Personal in its detail and universal in its themes, this landmark book shows why we must all keep fighting for the rights of girls and women everywhere.