Malala on Time's most influential list but her father is also an inspiration
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who stood up to the Taliban by going to school and was shot in the head by the militants for her bravery, has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world and her pensive, youthful gaze looks at us from the black and white cover.
“The Taliban almost made Malala a martyr; they succeeded in making her a symbol,” wrote Chelsea Clinton in the magazine.
The 15-year-old is recovering well from her injuries. In March she returned to the classroom, studying at a girls' high school near her family’s temporary home in England where she was flown for medical treatment last year.
She signed a $3 million book deal, landed the cover of a bastion of the liberal American establishment and the UN named November 10 Malala Day. Her fame and position as a global advocate for Muslim women is assured.
But something else makes Malala extraordinary and sets her apart from millions of other Pakistani and Afghan schoolgirls who yearn for an education: Malala’s first champion in life was her father. In that context, she is a lucky girl. Mothers in Afghanistan and Pakistan often wish their girls could enjoy better opportunities in life than them, but it rarely happens unless the fathers agree.
The fathers almost always make the final decisions about their children’s future with one eye kept on the family's honour, which is always tied to a girl's personal reputation. It takes a big man to ignore social pressures of a rural Pashtun culture that values girls only as mothers and housewives and a society that considers girls who are educated beyond primary school as unsuitable brides. Those attitudes are prevalent in areas not under Taliban control. In places like the Swat Valley, where the Yousafzais lived, the family had the additional terror of Taliban death threats against those who sent their girls to school.
Ziauddin Yousafzai is an enlightened man. He ran a school named after a Pashtun poet warrior. He was an active supporter of girls’ education who wrote his daughter’s birth on the family register -- unheard of in a society that values only boys. He admitted to the New York Times once that his daughter was special, and that after his two younger sons went to bed, Malala was allowed to stay up and talk politics. On Malala’s first day of school in England it was Ziauddin who accompanied her.
The American magazine covers may come and go, celebrity endorsements from the likes of Angelina Jolie fade, but for Malala it will be the enduring support of her father which will hold her in good stead throughout her life.
Let’s hope Ziauddin Yousafzai now inspires other fathers in Pakistan and Afghanistan to do the same.
Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at the Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour