Meet the Family Behind Malala

How I recruited the young Pakistani activist to become a blogger—and came to know her inspiring parents in the process.
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Malala Yousufzai with her father Ziauddin and her two younger brothers Khushal Khan and Atal Khan (R), as she recuperates (Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham/Reuters)

My introduction to Malala Yousafzai through her schoolteacher father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, was somewhat accidental. 

It happened during the Taliban's unprecedented ban on girls' education in Pakistan's Northwestern Swat Valley in December 2008. I had been covering the story for the BBC's Urdu-language service. The ban prompted me to pitch to my editors the idea of enlisting a young schoolgirl to write a blog for our widely read website.

The concept was simple—to document life under the Taliban as seen by a schoolgirl.

After getting the go-ahead from the editors, I approached one of my key contacts in Swat, Ziauddin. He ran a private school and was a vocal member of the anti-Taliban Swat Qaumi Jirga (community assembly), and provided great insight into his troubled homeland.

Within days he introduced me to one of his 10th grade students who was eager to write the blog but soon backed out because of parental pressure.

Nonetheless, I persisted and pressed Ziauddin to help me in finding a replacement. He eventually turned to his 11-year-old daughter, who gladly accepted the challenge.

It was the worst of times in Swat. After years of fighting in the remote western tribal regions along Afghanistan's border, the Taliban had expanded their reach and captured a strategic district close to Pakistan's heartland and imposed harsh rule. Floggings of alleged thieves and fornicators, beheadings, suicide attacks, and targeted killings were everyday occurrences. Raising a voice against Taliban atrocities in Swat was practically akin to signing your own death warrant.

I was impressed by Malala's intelligence. Long power cuts and almost no Internet in Swat Valley forced me to ask her to dictate her blog over the telephone.

I wanted to protect her identity. So I used to call her from my wife's cell phone. I strongly suspected the Pakistan intelligence services of tapping my telephones because of my critical reporting of their operations against the Taliban. As a further security precaution, I gave her a pen name, Gul Maka—Pashto for cornflower.

Malala was very shy initially but gradually gained in confidence and it was very easy to work with her. Her blog attracted a lot of attention within Pakistan and gained international fame after the BBC began to translate it into English for its global audience.

Gul Makai's real name was revealed to the world in 2011 when she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

But the Taliban were not happy with her prominence. Malala's name resonated around the globe after a Taliban assassin failed to kill her in October 2012. Following her miraculous recovery, Malala turned into a global icon. Her story reverberated across continents and inspired millions. 

Despite her global fame very few people know the folks who raised Malala. Her father, Ziauddian, and mother, Thorpekai, have done much to turn their eldest child into an independent individual who is courageous and articulate.

Ziauddin, a short moustachioed man with neatly combed hair, has mentored Malala. He once told me that he encouraged Malala from a very young age to grow as an independent person. "I wanted her to be my friend—someone who can be a comrade in my struggle and believes in my mission and philosophy," he said. "I never tried to clip the wings of my daughter who was meant to fly high in the sky."

By 2005, Swat gradually turned into the personal fiefdom of Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah. Ziauddin was one of the handful of local activists who dared to oppose him openly. His witty and incisive speeches were appreciated in Swat and he was widely quoted in tea houses and drawing rooms. His efforts were aimed at uniting the people against Taliban atrocities. "Swat has been treated like a poultry farm," he told one gathering. "The Taliban are slaughtering us one by one. We should see the writing on the wall and respond to their mayhem collectively."

At the height of their reign of terror in Swat in 2008, the Taliban identified Ziauddin as one of their opponents in one of their FM radio broadcasts. Such pronouncements were considered to be a death sentence in Swat.

Ziauddin was not deterred. Instead of publicly renouncing his struggle, Ziauddin moved underground. For many months of that year, he never spent a single night in one place. After the Taliban were driven out of Swat in a huge military offensive in 2009, Ziauddin recalled the dark days under Taliban rule. "Malala and her mother kept a wall ladder ready in the house," he said. "They thought it was my last lifeline if the Taliban came for me."

The overwhelming atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Swat prompted many of his relatives and friends to urge him to give up his public opposition to the Taliban.But Ziauddin never regretted his opposition to the extremists. "Cowards would always expect you to be frightened," he said. "But brave people would expect you to stand up."

The Pakistani military government's failure to confront the Taliban in Swat pushed Ziauddin to conclude that his country's security establishment wanted to keep its Taliban allies alive to use them as proxies in neighboring India and Afghanistan. "First we were seduced to become the Taliban," he said. "We were then held responsible for being extremists and were killed after being labelled as the Taliban."

He often ridiculed the meager compensation Islamabad offered to victims of Taliban violence. In one of his speeches he called attention to how the blood of people in Swat was cheaper than cattle. "The compensation for a Pashtun victim is less than the price of a buffalo," he said. The horned animal favoured for its milk costs nearly $3,000 in Pakistan whereas the compensation paid at that time for someone killed by the Taliban was $1000.

Ziauddin once likened Islamabad to bad parents. "A state treats its citizens like children but unfortunately we have been cheated by our parents," he said. 

Months before Malala's shooting in late 2012, Ziauddin's friend Zahid Khan, was attacked and injured by the Taliban. Members of the Swat Qaumi Jirga that Khan headed called on the local Pakistani military commander to consult with him about their anxieties. One of the participants told me that Ziauddin told the officer that the real war was supposed to be between the Taliban and the army. " We have never heard about the killing of any army officer," he told the general. "Instead the leaders and opinion makers who are backing you are being targeted. Why?" The participant said that Ziauddin's question left the officer speechless.

Malala's mother, Thorpekai, a modest housewife, has gifted the qualities of humility and simplicity to Malala. She is the unseen force behind her husband and daughter's courage and forthrightness. Thorpekai never went to school but she was inspired by her father, Jan Sar Khan. He was a dedicated follower of the 20th-century Pashtun pacifist Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who was allied with Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. They used the power of non-violence to humble the mighty British Empire.

Thorpekai has never been part of a political movement but she has proved a wise counsel to her husband. Ziauddin was once attracted to jihadists but Thorpakai’s father and brother convinced him to distance himself from a local cleric who was brainwashing youngsters to send them to Afghanistan for jihad. The cleric was associated with the Panjpiri sect—a local version of ultraconservative Salafi Islam.

Ziauddin told me that Thorpekai saved him from a nervous breakdown after Malala was shot. He told me that one day he asked her "if Malala dies people will hold me responsible for her death." But Thorpekai replied, "Never. You never groomed her to become a criminal or a terrorist. She stood for a noble cause."


This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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Abdul Hai Kakar is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. 

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