On January 30, 2020, the Women’s Fund – a strategic program of the Foundation – hosted its annual fundraising event, Keyholder, a night to invest in a more equitable future for women across Central Texas.
This year’s event centered on a conversation with Ziauddin Yousafzai, co-founder of Malala Fund and author of Let Her Fly. Ziauddin has spent much of his life advocating for free, safe, quality education for women and girls around the world.
We had the honor of hearing directly from Ziauddin as he shared his own journey as a father and activist. Here’s part of his conversation with Keyholder’20 chair, Marjorie Clifton.
Marjorie: “You said Austin sort of reminds you of Swat Valley, but it really is a different world completely. I wanted you to share a little bit about what it was like growing up as a boy in Swat Valley and what it was like for your [five] sisters.”
Ziauddin: “Thank you so much. I was feeling really very at home because of the hills [in Austin]. Swat has small hills in Mingora and then very tall mountains in the distance.
Speaking to the audience
You might be here [tonight] to get inspiration from me but believe me, I’m truly inspired by every one of you, especially the school children [here] because I have been a teacher for 18 years and one of the things I most miss from life in Pakistan is my classroom life. Hearing from [my students] and… then seeing their beautiful faces when they learn something new. I miss that life.
… [But] you asked what life was like growing up as a boy in Swat Valley.
I grew up in a very typical patriarchal family and in a traditional patriarchal society. I have five sisters and one brother and I could see two sides of parenthood under the same roof. Like I was given many opportunities. My sisters did not have that, [but I did], because I was a boy. [For example] when chicken was cooked, the men and I had [the most] supple part of the chicken and the boney parts are left for the girls. But the worst discrimination that crippled my sisters’ future and that decided my sisters’ future was their deprivation from education.
So really, I grew up in a very patriarchal family and what changed me in that society, my one-word answer is education. Education made me the kind of person that I was and that I am and that changed me into a different person.”
Marjorie: “Well and then one of the things that you share in your book, is that you write out the names of your sisters and you said, I’ve never seen my sisters names in writing before and when Malala was born, on your 400-year-old family tree you wrote her name and it shocked all of your male relatives. I mean women were basically invisible in the family.”
Ziauddin: “Yes, so one of the things that I could observe and realize as a boy was… [when] I was in grade 10 or 12 I saw one of my cousins forced into marriage and I could see that my sisters, like me, had big dreams. [My parents] wanted to see me be a very important and efficient person in society. They wanted to see me become a doctor, but for my five sisters, [my parents’] only dream was to get them married as early as possible. So, I could see the discrimination and [how] education changed me, it transformed me and I always said that it made my inner-being fair, just and beautiful and as you said, the invisibility of girls after age 12 and 13, girls are not supposed to go out of her four walls and it is decided that she is bonded. She is supposed to be just a wife and a mother and that’s why I always say that in many patriarchal societies, women and girls die as if they had never been born and it’s very unfair.
I remember when I used to take my mother to the doctor, the doctor on the prescription used to write, ‘mother of Mr. Ziauddin’. And if my father took her, she would become ‘wife of Mr. Rohil Amin’. And I did not want that invisibility and that was the reason I decided that if one day I am a father, I would be the father of a known daughter… [now] I did not know that I would be known by her, but the initial plan was that she will be herself and that’s why I named her after the legend of one heroic girl… Malalai of Maiwand. [She] was a girl, this 16 or 17 year [old girl], when she saw that the fighters [in the middle of a battle] fleeing away, she rose to a hill, like the hills of Austin, and she raised her voice and that voice was so powerful that the fighters [went] back and she rallied the fighters and she lifted the fighter’s army and they won that war, though she gave her life.
For me, the name of Malalai was so important because she had her own name. She was not known by her brother or her fiancée or her father… she had a voice. That’s why I named [my daughter] after Malalai of Maiwand. A few weeks after [Malala] was born, my cousin, he brought me the family tree and when I looked at [it], the [names] were all men. Fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers tracing back up to 400 years, but I had a daughter. I picked up my pen and drew a line from my name and wrote ‘Malala’. I entered her name and my cousin, he was really struck and he had this grimace on his face like ‘what is this crazy man doing?’ I just responded with a smile and I meant it.”
Marjorie: “You have said that you were inspired by education and in your education, you read about Martin Luther King and you read about Gandhi and Mother Teresa and these powerful vocal activists, but you were born with a stutter.”
Ziauddin: “I still have it.”
Marjorie: “And that is such a powerful thing to overcome. Something that would make most ordinary people decide, ‘oh I shouldn’t speak’.”
Ziauddin: “Yeah, I love to share this, especially with young people who need to speak up. As a young boy I was a stutterer, I still stutter, but I stutter beautifully. And I do stutter but I do speak.
So, as a boy when I was in school I had a very good headmaster and he was fond of activities like debate and my father himself was a very great speaker. He was a clerk in the mosque and every Friday he used to give a sermon. I wanted to become a speaker like him and like the other boys in the school, but the stuttering was a barrier. One day I asked my father, ‘would you write a speech for me?’ And… he was just surprised. He told me that when [I] speak in front of [him] I take a long time [for each sentence]. I said you just write for me and you’ll see.
I memorized the speech, I went to the podium on speech day, my eyes were open but I could not see anything, but I spoke so well, so well that when I finished my speech and I went down to the audience one of the teachers he came and he whispered in my ear ‘Ziauddin, you spread the fire’. That means that you spoke so well. I still carry those powerful words with me while I’m speaking now… So you see the role of teachers. And I’m so thankful to my father, God bless his soul, that he turned my weakness into a strength, but I was the first person to try it, I was the first person to determine that [my stutter] is a weakness. Some children were bullying me [because of my stutter] and I wanted to show [them] that no, this is part of me, this is strength.”
Marjorie: “You spoke for girls’ education and when the Taliban came [to Swat Valley], you continued to speak and your daughter began to speak up. [The Taliban] destroyed over 400 schools all over the area and women were not allowed to go to school. Malala is shot on October 9, 2012, and you’re not sure if she’ll even survive. How did you feel, did you regret letting her speak up?”
Ziauddin: “This is a very important question. You see just imagine that you’re in Swat Valley where guns don’t have extradition. And imagine [you’re] a person who loves education and education has transformed [that person’s] life.
Just keeping in perspective all of that situation, when education becomes the most precious gem in your life and all my dreams for my daughter, [education] was the key. That was the only way that I could see Malala a different girl, to be a girl by herself, to be known by herself, to live with all her human dignity and when some bad guys come and they say no education for girls, they say that this is western, it is prohibited. This is very difficult for a person, like me, it is unacceptable, simply unacceptable.
I mean I had two options whether or not to speak and at the time I [was] just… a simple, ordinary teacher [becoming] a fighter for the right of education. Malala was a brilliant student in her class. She had to raise her voice for the right to education.
The next night [after Malala was attacked] I asked my wife, ‘could I have done differently, could I have stopped her?’ And [my wife] was very strong in her expression, she told me, ‘please don’t think like this. You stood for the right to education and for peace. Your daughter, like [you], she stood for the right to education and peace. The people who attacked her should be repenting, they should be repenting, why should you?’ I so believe in the wisdom of my wife that whenever I have any problem the first person I go to is Toor Pakei. In the morning time when I [put on] my suit, I don’t look in the mirror, I just stand in front of her and if she says ‘ok’, then I go. So, I didn’t have regret after that and that was a great lesson for me.”
Marjorie: “I wanted you to leave [with a message], especially [for] our men and young women in the audience. Because as you said, you were a teacher and you were forced to become a fighter. And we’ve talked about one of the biggest harms [to education] is not necessarily the control of power but complacency.”
Ziauddin: “Oh yes, I mean I will say two to three things. Number one, yes as a father… are there fathers in this venue? Would you like to raise your hands, all of the mothers and fathers? Ok… oh a lot. I’m so happy!
So, people ask me what’s special that I did for my daughter, that she’s so poised and bold and [even] comical at times and I tell them, don’t ask me what I did, ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings. And number two I appreciated her for small tiny things when she was a child. We parents should be the first people to believe in our children. And you talked about the complacency like sometimes we are always fond of correcting others, I mean including me, and many of us don’t look inside, inwardly, so this can lead to a sense that everything is great and fine. This is not the right approach. If we [want] women and girls to move forward, they have [so many barriers]… the glass ceiling, male chauvinism, misogyny, which stops women and girls from moving forward, [from being] in higher positions, to having the ‘key’, I love this word, that’s why I very much appreciate this, ‘key is she’?”
Marjorie: “She is key.”
Ziauddin: “She is key! So, education for girls especially, for women especially, it is like if you want women and girls to be the ‘keyholder’, we must educate them. I can’t imagine that a girl could ever be free without education. And that is the reason the Taliban was against education because they could see that when a girl goes to school and she opens the books, her dreams become different. She then dreams beyond being a mother and a wife. She dreams of herself flying airplanes, flying cars… uhh driving cars haha sorry! And dreaming [of herself] becoming a teacher, doctor, politician or leader. And that is not acceptable to [the Taliban], so that’s why I think that we should think about the barriers, the layers of barriers, and where we as men can remove [those barriers] because ultimately if we want to make this world a better place, equality and justice is a must. That is very much important.”