Op-Ed

The Muslim father behind the Pakistani Nobel Prize winner

Malala Yousafzai.
Malala Yousafzai. AFP/Getty Images

This is the opening line of I am Malala, the compelling memoir that chronicles the struggles of Malala Yousafzai, who at 17 has become the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Prize.“When I was born, people in our village commiserated with my mother and nobody congratulated my father.”

However, Ziauddin Yousafzai was no an ordinary father. He remembers looking into his newborn daughter’s eyes and falling in love.

I can never reminiscence about Malala without thinking about her father. In him, I see a strong parallel with my own father. When I was born in a remote village in Pakistan, my father was serving in the Military Engineering Corps of the Pakistan Army in the mountainous north. Joyous at the birth of his first daughter, he distributed sweets and initially chose the name “Bakht Bhari” (filled with luck). Understandably, the reaction back home was muted and solemn. It is hard to believe that Ziauddin and my father are the scions of a patriarchal society, where girls are deemed a burden.

Recalibrating the norms of a society entrapped in cultural barriers is no easy feat. Daughters in Pakistan and other repressive societies share more than their due burden of guarding the honor of families. However, men like Ziauddin and my father were ever cognizant of the fact that their religion, Islam, is progressive and that daughters are as invaluable as boys.

Muslim men who comprehend Islam’s ideals are well attuned to following the example of their beloved Prophet Muhammad who treated his daughters with utmost care, love and respect. When his beloved Fatima visited him, he would stand up in respect to greet her. Prophet Muhammad promised his own company to men who nurtured daughters with affection and esteem. “He who brings up two girls through their childhood will appear on the Day of Judgment attached to me like two fingers of a hand.”

Millions of girls in Pakistan and elsewhere share their aspirations with Malala. However, they find their wings clipped by shallow societal standards. The concocted honor codes solidify male dominance and disrupt the equilibrium of these societies.

Ziauddin Yousafzai was cognizant of the challenges that impeded his daughter’s quest, yet he continued to give her unwavering support. In fact, he is Malala’s real motivation. Malala became an emblem of girls’ education because her father instilled in her the love of knowledge and learning. From the onset, Ziauddin was passionate about promoting education in Swat. The pathos of the patriarchal society — where women are virtually invisible — was in sharp contrast to his aspirations.

Ziauddin was always a misfit in the society due to a progressive mindset that chronically struggled to comply with the “macho” norms of his society. He well understood that the restrictions on women were cultural. Being a devout Muslim, he knew that these customs are out of line with Islamic principles that didn’t bar women from obtaining an education.

Such inspiration propelled Ziauddin to become a crusader for reform as he set out to establish a school in Swat. Malala became the face of Ziauddin’s aspirations. He set out to live his dreams through his daughter. Ziauddin re-instated her rightful status — guaranteed by Islam — and empowered Malala to reclaim her inherent rights.

Ziauddin’s motivation lends a lucid understanding to Malala’s story. Bold men like him, who embrace the vitality and potential of women, are much needed in Pakistan and other Islamic countries struggling for gender equality. Malala sends a strong message to the critics of Islam who often wrongly conflate radical ideology with Islam’s principles. Malala’s determination to continue her crusade is deeply rooted in Islamic ideals and principles that guarantee her the right to pursue an education.

Malala’s Nobel Prize should herald an era of better understanding of the challenges that she endured. In fact, Malala’s recognition should serve as poignant reminder that the struggle to achieve peace in the world endures. Educating girls worldwide will serve that purpose well. Girls can be agents of change in repressive societies riddled with inequities, poverty and illiteracy. Strong, determined and willful fathers — who value daughters — can help recalibrate the societal norms by empowering their daughters. Such girls will not only serve to honor their fathers, they also will become agents of change in societies that need them most.

Mansura Bashir Minhas is a Pakistani-American freelance writer who resides in Broward County.

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