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.

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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.

There are some efforts in the region to train tribal leaders and families in the value of education for girls. In Afghanistan, poverty, illiteracy and traditional social expectations "have been as big of enemies of education as the Taliban," says Jean Kissell, executive director of the nonprofit Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan. Many children don't go to school, she says, because they are needed to work, "earning bread for their families." This is "not tribal tradition, nor is it the Taliban," she says. "This is poverty, lack of good governance, the absence of human rights and the lack of law and order."

Her group spent seven years training some 30,000 local leaders on various topics, including the importance of education for girls, explaining the ways in which educated girls can benefit family and society. The payoff, though, "takes years."

An Afghan father of two young daughters, Saidal Pazhwak, works with Kissell's group in Kabul. "I believe that education is a girl's right," he says, adding that many parents want to educate their daughters but lack either a safe environment or nearby schools to do so.

His mission, he says, is to train more teachers, especially female teachers. He says his group has helped train around 10,000 women teachers in Kabul in the past two years, with funding from the World Bank. He wants to see more women in government positions in remote areas as well, serving as role models.

There is a considerable way to go, says Sabatina James, a Pakistani-born activist who defied a forced marriage as a teen. When she refused to marry a cousin, she says, her parents threatened her life, telling her she had ruined the family honor. Now in her 30s, she hasn't seen her family since. Today she lives in Germany, where her nonprofit group, Sabatina, rescues girls whose fathers try to force them to wed.

"In honor-based culture, people think that girls could become too independent and make their own choices if they educate themselves," she says. "They are afraid what could happen if girls learn to read and write."

Malala said in a video this week, "I think it is the happiest moment that I am going back to my school. Today I will have my books, my bag, and I will learn ... I want to learn about politics, about social rights, and about the law. I want to learn how to bring change in this world."

In the video, her father walked her to school. Alyse Nelson, president of the advocacy group Vital Voices, met with him recently in Birmingham. "He told me that his mother, his sisters, his nieces, his wife were never educated, but he decided to be the change by educating his daughter and his sons," she says.

He is particularly proud, she adds, that his sons see Malala as a hero.