Before Malala Yousafzai won awards at home and abroad for Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl, her father Ziauddin had the best-known name in the family – and the one called out on Taliban radio.
“Before that, she was my daughter,” he said, smiling as he addressed Grade 4 and 5 students at Secord Elementary last month.
“Now I’m her father.”
As a young man in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Ziauddin found himself with a Master’s in English but no teaching job.
Rather than leaving Swat, where his own father and brother were teachers, Ziauddin decided to start his own school from scratch – a tiny primary school where at first he was “teacher, sweeper, manager, and accountant.”
When Malala was born, Ziauddin’s school had grown to 1,000 students – 600 boys and 400 girls – and offered classes from Grade 1 to high school.
“Schooling was my passion,” he said. “That’s where I could see a place for me as a tool for change in my society.”
Because he taught girls, and because he spoke openly against the Taliban, Ziauddin was an obvious target, especially in 2008 when the Taliban tried to ban all girls’ education in Swat. They bombed several schools, and for a while, Ziauddin had to sleep in a different place every night.
In the spring of 2009, the whole family left Swat for three months until the Pakistan military re-secured the area.
By that time, Malala was 12 and had already posted one year’s worth of entries to Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl, the BBC blog where she detailed her life at school and addressed the Taliban threats.
Malala used a pen name for the blog, but she later spoke out in TV interviews, chaired a children’s assembly, and in 2011 she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.
When she didn’t win, the Pakistan government awarded her its first-ever National Youth Peace Prize – a prize that Ziauddin noted has since been named after her.
Despite Malala’s growing fame, Ziauddin said no one expected the Taliban to target her directly, as they did the next summer.
She was 15, and on her way home when a gunman flagged down her school bus, asked for Malala by name, and shot her in the head.
“They wanted to kill two birds with one stone,” Ziauddin said. “They wanted to terrorize me, and to kill her.
“But it didn’t happen. My strength is my daughter, and I’m her strength. And my wife is the strength of the whole family.”
At Secord, students were all ears while Ziauddin spoke, but they also brought plenty of questions.
One boy asked why the Taliban oppose girls’ education.
“I have sympathies with them,” Ziauddin said. “If our education system, our government, could have reached them when they were your age, that would not have happened … They could not read the books themselves, so they don’t understand their importance. And there are ideological problems.”
A girl in Grade 4 asked Ziauddin how he would punish the man who shot Malala.
Before answering, Ziauddin asked the Secord students what they themselves would do.
Some said they would send the man to jail, take the Taliban’s guns away, or ban them all from government. Others said they would forgive him.
Ziauddin then said he himself would point out that the shooter had failed as an assassin and tell him, “You are still lucky – don’t try again. Rather than jail, I would put him in a school for de-radicalization,” he said, explaining that “de-radicalization” means something like de-magnetizing someone, or teaching them to look at the world’s brighter side.
Today, the Yousafzais live in England, where Ziauddin said Malala and her two brothers are enjoying school, though they miss their friends in Pakistan, and flying kites on their roof.
“To be honest, they have been uprooted,” he said.
Rosemary McCarney, the president of Plan Canada, spoke along with Ziauddin about the right of all children to go to school.
McCarney said she too has met many children uprooted by conflict or threats – in refugee camps around the world, she has met children their age who have to study in buildings protected by soldiers, or outside, under trees.
McCarney asked the Secord students if they knew how many girls worldwide either have no school, or aren’t welcome to go.
One boy had the answer – 66 million.
“Ask, ‘Why is that happening?’” McCarney said. “How can we still live in a world where 66 million girls are not able to go to school today?”
That is something Ziauddin Yousafzai is still working to fix, now as a United Nations special advisor for Global Education. Days before he visited Secord, his only school stop in Canada, Ziauddin gave a talk at a Vancouver TED conference that has already been viewed more than 350,000 times online.
Despite his UN title and global profile, Ziauddin said everyone knows him as the father of Malala. He said that is a rare honour, especially in Pakistan.
“I am one of the few who is known by his daughter,” he said. “I am really proud of that.”