Meeting Malala’s Dad: Why we need male champions for women’s education

Remember, remember, 5th of November

By Anj Handa

Well, I will certainly remember 5th November 2016. On that day, I had hoped to meet Nobel laureate and female education champion, Malala Yousafzai. She was billed to attend the WOW Festival in Bradford.

Getting Malala to come to Yorkshire was a real coup and was down to the ‘Wowsers’. They’re a group of British Pakistani teenagers, who had sent her a heartfelt video, telling her why she was their idol. The video had touched her and she’d agreed to come. Prior to the event, I was invited to hold an interview with ITV Yorkshire about the importance of role models.

About the WOW Festival

WOW (Women of the World) looks at the obstacles that stop women and girls from achieving their potential. It asks why is gender equality taking so long. The initiative was founded from the Southbank Centre in London by Jude Kelly. WOW now involves more than two million people in more than 30 countries.

Fortunately for us, Jude still has a heartfelt connection to Yorkshire, having been the founding director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 1990 to 2002. I have no doubt this is the reason behind the rollout of this amazing initiative to Bradford.

Only last week, Jude’s announcement that she’s standing down from the Southbank Centre to fully concentrate on WOW. This came as a surprise to many, since she’d run the organisation for over a decade.

Like Jude, I believe that art and culture drive necessary changes in society. This is why I Chair Freedom Studios in Bradford and am a Governor of Leeds Arts University in my free time. Art (in all its forms) is a catalyst for positive social change.

When we got to the venue, we were told that Malala had turned back to the Midlands due to a severe headache. It was a likely explanation. A bullet had narrowly missed her brain when a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus and shot her in the head near her home in Swat Valley, Pakistan in 2012. She was later airlifted to Britain, where she underwent numerous surgeries and made a good recovery.

Equally, it could have been a cover for security issues, since her engaging, mustachioed dad (who acts as Malala’s chaperone at many events) proceeded on to join us in Bradford. Malala joined us later via Skype. Her  Although the Wowsers couldn’t fight back their tears at the devastating news, when  Ziauddin started to talk, they gave him their full attention… And so did their parents.

Emancipation

“’Don’t ask me what I did – ask what I did not do. I did not clip her wings. Let’s not clip the wings of our daughters. And why do mums act more strictly than fathers when they’ve been through it themselves? We should listen to our children very carefully.”

Ziauddin described his wife and daughter’s education are ‘positive revenge’ for his own childhood. He’d watched his five sisters held back by cultural norms. His sisters didn’t go to school, only he and his older brother were sent. Not only that, but the better food and choicest cuts were given to boys. The girls were made to wait until they were done.

He told us how his wife, Tor Pekai, had been denied an education, but learned to read and write English when they moved to the UK. This was something that would have been denied to her back home. He added that while some other Pakistani fathers fought hard for their daughters to receive ‘basic education’, he’d always wanted Malala to fulfil her complete intellectual potential.

He went on to explain that, to him, education isn’t simply about maths or science, but rather about emancipation, especially in patriarchal societies. There, girls are defined by their relationship to man i.e. someone’s wide, daughter etc.

This ‘tradition’ continues even to this day in some British Indian and Pakistani households (even, by the way, in my own extended family), with parents not even questioning the status quo. It’s a matter of cultural rather than religious inequality and is deeply ingrained.

The Critics Don’t Count

“Men who don’t believe in girls’ education, empower or equality must be sick. They’re not men. There will be people who laugh at you or try to quieten you. It happens in most countries.”

Ziauddin told us that his family tree only listed the menfolk, so he added Malala to it, alongside her brothers, Atal and Khushal. It prompted one of his nephews to address Malala’s mum, saying “This is against our Pashtun culture.” She was upset, but Ziauddin her to reply to reply to any future comments with “Don’t poke your nose in our family business.” Ironically, the same nephew has since become a firm supporter of the agenda.

Women across the world are still disadvantaged in terms of education and literacy, health, finance and jobs. It’s an economic issue, not just a feminist one. In order to raise human capital, growth and productivity, we must do better in terms of female education. How will you play your part?