Ziauddin Yousafzai – “Teacher to the world”

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By Akbar Ahmed

One of the great ironies of Ziauddin Yousafzai’s life is that while he was mocked for his stammer by his relatives and could therefore not speak in public, he now speaks on international platforms and his voice is heard by presidents and prime ministers. The teacher who struggled to promote education in his village in Swat may now be justifiably called “Teacher to the World.”

In Let her Fly: A Father’s Journey, his recently published autobiography, Ziauddin speaks with admirable candour of the travails of his life— his ordinary lineage and precarious economic situation, the cruel and corrupt patriarchal society around him and then of course relatives who mocked his stammer relentlessly:

“The curse of the stammer was compounded by two other things. The first was that we were not rich and the second was that my father was a maulana. Pakistan is a country of caste systems, and forty years ago the teachers openly favoured rich boys, especially the sons of the tribal lords. This made me so sad. I was a clever boy who tried hard. I needed my education.”

But Ziauddin was born with a great drive and vision to become a teacher and promote education. As a teacher he had to master how to speak in public. Despite his speaking impediment, he entered a local speaking competition and after spending hours alone practising, won the competition. There was no holding him back then and his small school soon attracted large numbers of students and his reputation grew. Ziauddin became a leading light in the local Rotary Club.

Among Ziauddin’s students was his own daughter Malala. Encouraged by her father, Malala was soon reading Jane Austin, Leo Tolstoy and the Twilight books by the age of 12. She was also writing a blog for the BBC promoting the idea of women’s education. It had begun to attract the attention of the Taliban.

It was about this time that the Taliban took over the Swat Valley and Maulana Fazl ullah emerged as the Taliban leader. One of his first broadcasts was the announcement that beginning on January 15th, 2009, girls would no longer be allowed to go to school. Ziauddin was aghast.

Malala captures that period in her own book I am Malala:  “That was when the school bombings began and Maulana Fazlullah, a young extremist who had once operated the pulleys at a river crossing, became known as the Radio Mullah, a direct arm of the Taliban, installing a systematic rule of terror over the Swat Valley. Fazlullah announced the closing of girls’ schools; he lauded the killing of a female dancer; his goons killed a teacher for refusing to pull his trousers above the ankle the way the Taliban members wore theirs. ‘Nowhere in Islam is this required,’ the teacher had cried out in his defense.”

“They hanged him,” Malala relates dryly, “and then they shot his father.”

Neither father nor daughter were admirers of the Taliban. Here is Malala describing them:

“It seemed to us that the Taliban arrived in the night just like vampires. They appeared in groups, armed with knives and Kalashnikovs. These were strange-looking men with long straggly hair and beards and camouflage vests over their shalwar kamiz, which they wore with the trousers well above the ankle. They had jogging shoes or cheap plastic sandals on their feet, and sometimes stockings over their heads with holes for their eyes, and they blew their noses dirtily into the ends of their turbans.”

Ziauddin’s life, and that of his daughter and family, changed forever on October 9th, 2012, when Malala was shot by a gunman on her way to school. In his book, Ziauddin recalls the moment, “The only way I can describe it was like being sucked into a deep black hole. I was out of the frame of space and time. I was like a stone, utterly blank.”

From that moment onwards the Yousufzai family was on a roller coaster that would propel them into the international spotlight and onto the world stage. They were flown to Birmingham in the UK and after intensive surgery Malala was able to join a local school and then proceed to Oxford University as an undergraduate.

Ziauddin may not have been born great to echo Shakespeare, but he has achieved greatness. Few men in history have devoted themselves to a daughter as he has and, after her terrible ordeal of being shot in the head, few shown such  grace and courage. His devotion to his daughter is a lesson for every parent.

Ziauddin marvels in his book, “Whenever anybody has asked me how Malala became who she is, I have often used the response ‘Ask me not what I did but what I did not do. I did not clip her wings.’”

It is clear from Malala’s reflections in her Foreword for Let her Fly that she appreciated deeply   her father’s efforts:

“I was always being told ‘You are doing so well in your studies, Jani,’ ‘You are speaking so well.’ Jani, which means ‘love’ or ‘soul mate,’ is his nickname for me. I was always recognized and encouraged for my little accomplishments, my schoolwork, art, speaking competitions, everything. My dad was always proud of me. He believed in me more than I believed in myself and this gave me confidence that I could do anything and everything.”

Indeed in a profound sense Let her Fly is dedicated to Malala – the title and subtitle reflect Malala, the Foreword is by her, and much of the book is about her. His humility in his chosen profession of teaching and his pride in his daughter shine like a spotlight on the narrative.

The move to the UK came with a new series of challenges for Ziauddin, and he recalls the impact the move had on his wife ToorPekai: “I realized sadly that her life in the UK, in the beginning, was a complete reversal of the independence she had had in Pakistan. Pekai could not be free in Birmingham in the beginning because of the language barrier, and because of her fear.” In addition, his eldest son, Khushal, struggled to integrate into life in the UK, deeply missing the life that he had in Pakistan, and sensing that Malala was getting all Ziauddin’s attention put a strain on their relationship. These adjustments took time to find a new balance.

In the meantime, while she was being seen as a source of inspiration and pride by many Pakistanis, especially the young, others still circulated stories accusing Ziauddin of staging his daughter’s shooting by the Taliban in order to win favour from the West. For her admirers her Nobel Peace Prize and the composed and inspiring speech she delivered at the UN with the Secretary-General, Gordon Brown and her family in attendance will be a source of inspiration, especially to young females. Malala’s education at Oxford University and the international lecture circuit keep father and daughter in the limelight.

But the Yousafzais yearn for their beautiful Swat homeland endlessly. This love for Pakistan, Pakistanis of every persuasion hope, would encourage Ziauddin, the teacher to the world, to return to his homeland and through his international contacts help provide quality education to the young, especially in the less privileged areas. That test awaits him.

(The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.)