Malala Yousufzai speaks at the Women Deliver Conference 2023 in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
Malala Yousufzai speaks at the Women Deliver Conference 2023 in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

“I want patriarchy smashed right in front of my eyes. Smashed into pieces,” Ziauddin Yousufzai says with immense zeal. His words come as a breath of fresh air for the audience, most of whom are women that have been navigating and campaigning against the challenges of patriarchal societies around the world.

To hear a man, a father, having no qualms in saying that he wants the system of male-domination gone for good, is a refreshing change. But then again, coming from the father of plucky Malala Yousufzai, the youngest Nobel Laureate, it comes as little surprise.

Sitting on stage, sharing tidbits about their lives, their relationship and the work they have done, the father-daughter duo enthrals the audience that has turned up in droves to hear them speak at the Women Deliver Conference 2023 in Kigali.

And they don’t disappoint; both Malala and Ziauddin are frank and funny at the same time, exuding a warmth that puts the audience at ease. A number of ‘dad moments’ that transpire on stage — such as when Ziauddin asks his overachieving daughter for help with the mic — also amuse those in attendance.

But it is a relationship that speaks volumes; the bond between father and daughter has evolved with time. The Malala who once used to hold her father’s hand as she navigated airports, is now helping him figuring out technical issues and responding to him with quick-witted quips.

Having become a symbol for girls’ education at a young age, the dream of seeing all girls go to school is one that Malala still holds close to her heart.

She is also cognisant of the debt she owes to history. “More than a century ago, women were not in the place where we are now, and we need to pay tribute to all those who have worked really hard for us. But of course, when we look ahead, we still see that [true] gender equality is perhaps another 100 years [further down the road],” Malala says, adding that her activism and advocacy aims to make this world a better place for all.

Ziauddin then speaks about having an egalitarian family, saying that fathers ought to believe in the progress of their daughters from the moment of their birth, saying that this way, “half the job has already been done”.

He credits his own father for instilling in him a more progressive outlook — even though their family is quite traditional in their own way. “I had a futuristic father who, despite being a cleric, put me in a school as opposed to a madressah, and education changed me. I was determined to approach fatherhood differently… it was an intergenerational change. I am so glad that I have not only raised a feminist daughter, but feminist sons as well.”

When he describes her usage of unusual metaphors during her younger years as a testament to her intelligence, Malala quickly interjects to say she has no memory of such a thing.

She notes that her father — who has stood by her side in whatever she did — would always look her squarely in the eye when she spoke, validating her thoughts and giving her ideas the importance, despite her youth. “Just because you’re young doesn’t mean your voice isn’t important,” Malala says, to nods of approval from the audience.

Making a case for patriarchs who are too set in their ways, Ziauddin elicits a few gasps here and there when he says: “Don’t be too hard [on men] because we need time.”

But he quickly explains with an anecdote: “When Malala was leaving for Oxford, she told me ‘Abba, I was in an all-girls school in Pakistan and the same in Birmingham. Now in Oxford, I would be talking to [boys]’. When I said to her ‘Jaani, I trust you’, she didn’t take a second to respond ‘Don’t trust me Abba’ because she knew that trust is a liability. Then I told her that I didn’t trust her, but she could do what she wanted.”

Hearing them speak, it is obvious that Malala takes after her father when it comes to hoping for change.

This is evident from another of Ziauddin’s anecdotes about how one of his nephews had once told his wife (Malala’s mother) that Malala needed to tone down her media presence because it did not align with their culture. “I told my wife to inform him to not poke his nose in my family’s affairs,” he says, adding that the same nephew is now a feminist himself.

“So things do change,” he says, with hope in his voice.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2023

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