When Ziauddin Yousafzai’s first child was born, he named her after Malali, a famous Pashtun girl who inspired Afghans not to give up their fight against the British in 1880. Now that woman—Malala—has inspired the world not to give up the fight to educate girls.
Both Ziauddin and Malala spoke out against the Taliban when the Islamist militants banned girls from attending school in their home, the Swat Valley in Pakistan. At age 15, Malala was shot by the Taliban, and her family fled to the United Kingdom. Three years later, the father and daughter are continuing their fight through the Malala Fund, a nonprofit that promotes girls’ education.
On February 29, the documentary He Named Me Malala will have its television premiere on the National Geographic Channel at 8/7c. (The Channel partnered with Fox Searchlight Pictures on the release of the documentary.) We spoke to Ziauddin about the importance of getting an education, speaking up for what you believe in, and his pride in his daughter.
What’s it like to be known as Malala’s dad?
I think it happened to me in Swat before Malala was attacked. My friends in Swat, when they used to invite me to the podium, they used to say, “Now we invite Malala’s father.” So it was really something very inspiring. In a patriarchal society, men and women both, they are always known by their family, and I think I am one of those few—hardly any—who is known by his daughter. I’m very proud of it, and I’m thankful to God. I’m a blessed father to be known by my daughter. (Read our interview with Malala.)
Education is very important to you. What made you want to become a teacher and start your own school?
I was very much keen about change in society—social change, economic change, political change. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that if I really want to change my community, my society, I should start from education. I should work on education for the children of my community. In our society, we’re dealing with extremism. You have some fanatics who even kill people for differences of opinion. In such a society, education can bring a very big change to make people respectful to others.
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I told my students that it’s good to respect your parents; but when it comes to your basic rights, you should not always obey. You should disobey in a respectful way. You should tell your parents that they should not marry you at a very early age. They should let you complete your education.
You were a public critic of the Taliban in Pakistan. What made you speak out?
I am a man of character and a man who has heart and soul both, a breathing body. When he sees his basic rights violated, when he sees that all his freedoms and all his liberties are being suffocated by a group of people—when one finds himself or herself in that situation, then it is very natural that he or she will stand and say, “No, it is unacceptable.”
When the Taliban was bombing hundreds of schools, when they were killing, and when they completely banned education, that was a time that we had to say that: “No, it is unacceptable.” We have to live with our human dignity. Nobody has any right, any excuse, to deprive us of our dignity.
Did you encourage Malala to speak out publicly against the Taliban, or did she tell you that she wanted to do that?
When I encouraged her to speak in very early childhood, there were no Taliban in Swat then. Malala started speaking in her school as a good schoolchild. In spite of my stuttering, my father taught me how to be a good speaker. So I believe that, not only “like father, like son,” it could be “like father, like daughter.” So right from the very beginning, I was very much interested that my daughter should be a good speaker. She learned it as a skill.
On many occasions, I used to lose heart. I told her one day that when you go to speak, please don’t say Taliban, just say terrorists. And we were astonished that when she went to speak, she said Taliban. And I asked her, “Why are you doing so? I told you this was not good.” And she told me, “They call themselves Taliban, and they are the people who are bombing schools, banning us from schools, so why should I make confusion? I should call them what they call themselves.”
So you couldn’t have stopped her if you wanted to?
I couldn’t have done so.
At the end of the film, your daughter says of you: “He named me Malala, but he did not make me Malala.” What do you think she meant by that?
That is very true. As a parent, you can only inspire your child. It’s not like engineering. You can’t construct somebody. I can simply inspire my sons and my daughters. Malala is very wise when she says that “he named me Malala, he did not make me Malala.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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