Malala Yousafzai’s Father Pens Autobiography, “Let Her Fly”

While many know the courageous story of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist who spoke out for girls’ education and overcame an attack by the Taliban, few are aware of her family’s experiences. Especially close with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Malala’s activism was largely inspired and encouraged by her parents, and now Ziauddin has written a new book detailing the course of his life. “Whenever anybody has asked me how Malala became who she is, I have often used the phrase. ‘Ask me not what I did but what I did not do. I did not clip her wings,’” he says.

Let Her Fly is Ziauddin’s account of growing up as a young man in Pakistan and his eventual parental role as father to a female activist in a region hostile to this type of work. Ziauddin documents his life from an early age, in which he developed a stammer as a young boy and witnessed his sisters and female relatives barred from the same educational opportunities he and other men were afforded. He recalls asking himself, “…why are five of my sisters not going to school? This was the end of your life, in a way, of your social life, because the only dream parents had for girls was, the earlier they married, the better. So those are the circumstances that made me conscious, made me stand against the social contract, which was anti-development, anti-rights of girls.”

Intensely aware of how hurtful bullying could be due to his stammer, Ziauddin committed to himself at an early age that he would work against inequality. “I became a person who hates all kinds of discrimination and injustice in society, whether it’s because of the colour of somebody, because of any physical impairment, physical deficiencies or social status,” he explains. “I became very conscious of all these discriminations and one of the worst was among the boys and girls. And that’s why it became my mission in life that I will fight for women’s rights, for girls’ education, for women’s empowerment.”

With a small sum of money saved, Ziauddin ventured to start his own school. What began as a community school with only three students grew to over 1,100 students—boys and girls—by 2012. By that time, the Taliban had taken control of the Swat Valley and imposed a ban on education for girls. Speaking out against this ban brought with it constant fear and danger, and Ziauddin did everything he could to keep his family protected. That same year, however—after Malala had become better known for her activism—she suffered the traumatic attack from the Taliban. For Ziauddin, this time is still difficult to talk about, though he says it was as if he were in “a dark space,” where “I forgot how to cry…I couldn’t see anything, and I forgot how to cry or express myself.”

Upon Malala’s miraculous recovery and her coming out of a coma, Ziauddin begin to help his daughter regain her memory and speech through poetry. The family also moved to Birmingham, England so that Malala could continue receiving treatment, “But it was also so my children could be educated in a peaceful environment without any fear. This is why it’s so important when we talk about every child’s right to quality, free and safe education,” says Ziauddin.

The adjustment to European life was not an easy one, Ziauddin admits, especially for his wife, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, who found the cultural differences difficult to adapt to. Ziauddin himself also initially struggled with expectations for his sons, who were growing up with more freedoms than he had as a young man. Eventually, though, Ziauddin and Toor learned to relax more and slowly embrace the change.

In March of 2018, Ziauddin says Malala convinced him to have the family visit Pakistan, despite his attempts to deter her. Malala told him, “If you think that there will be an ideal time to go back, it will never happen.” The Yousafzai’s did make the trek, meeting with dozens of women’s rights activists along the way. Ziauddin’s hope is that someday the family will be able to return and continue to champion their cause of girls’ equal access to education in the region.

Today, Malala is studying at Oxford and the family continues to live in England. When asked about the title of his autobiography, Ziauddin once again defers to the grace and power he sees not only in his daughter, but in women everywhere. “Let her fly means let every girl fly, in every corner of the world,” he says. “Let every girl fly.”