Being Malala Yousafzai's Dad

Across Afghanistan and Pakistan, many families support educating their daughters, but things often change at puberty. Here's what it takes for fathers to buck the trend.
malala with family banner.jpg
Malala Yousafzai with her father Ziauddin and her two younger brothers as she recuperates at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England on October 25, 2012. (Reuters)

Five months after she was gunned down on a school bus by the Taliban, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai is back in school. Her biggest cheerleader: Dad.

Last fall, the news of the crime infuriated the world: Militants had shot the 15-year-old girl in the head to stop her from campaigning for education for girls. Now nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, she is attending high school in Birmingham, England, while recuperating from surgeries to her skull.

Her father, Ziauddin, a school owner and activist for education himself, had backed Malala's academic pursuits throughout her childhood in Pakistan, defying a deeply rooted belief in parts of the region that girls are the property of men--destined to stay home, forgo school, and marry young.

He's not alone in encouraging his daughter to choose her own fate. "I have met fathers who insist on educating their daughters, despite all odds," says Zainab Salbi, founder of the advocacy group Women for Women International.

It sounds like common sense. Yet given reports from the region of school bombings, murdered teachers and acid attacks on female students, the difficulty for a father to make this decision becomes evident.

Just weeks after Malala was shot, a teenage girl in Afghanistan was reportedly beheaded for refusing to wed. The girl, named Gastina, had a supporter in her father as well. He felt his daughter was too young, at 14, to wed; he refused to approve a marriage to a relative who demanded her hand. The rejected suitor and his brother retaliated, slashing the girl's throat with a knife.

"It is not rare for fathers to support their daughters," says Noorjahan Akbar, an Afghan-born student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. "My sister and I have always had the support of both of our parents in our education and in our activism," says Akbar, who helped launch an all-female Internet cafe in Kabul.

The stories can be heart-wrenching. Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker Samar Minallah Khan says that in northern Pakistan a few years ago, she met a father who had been ordered by a local tribal council to give away his eight-year-old daughter as compensation for a crime committed by a relative. "He wanted to give his land, his home, but not his daughter," Khan says. Khan says she lobbied local leaders, and the girl was ultimately spared and today is in school.

Heather Barr, an Afghan-based researcher with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, says many families in Afghanistan "are supportive of their daughters going to school" but that things often change at puberty. "Unfortunately there is a huge drop in school attendance by girls after primary school, which is probably related to many factors, including availability of schools, but also family pressures and early marriage," she says. She recalls meeting a woman whose brother had been killed by the Taliban because he shielded a younger sister from a forced marriage.

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Abigail Pesta is a journalist and former foreign correspondent now based in New York. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Marie Claire, and Newsweek.

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