INTERVIEW: Ziauddin Yousafzai on his daughter’s biopic, ‘He Named Me Malala’
For an entertainment journalist, interviewing actors, writers, and directors is a significant part of the territory. These characters are almost always interesting and intelligent, and send me away feeling satisfied that my world has been expanded just that little bit further. It was an especially rare treat, however, to meet up with Ziauddin Yousafzai – the Pakistani diplomat best known as the father of Malala Yousafzai – to discuss He Named Me Malala earlier this month. It’s not often one finds themselves in the presence of someone at once so unassuming and humble, yet so fiercely passionate about human rights, freedom and independence – all of which, Yousafzai tells me with conviction, are hinged on the issue of education.
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, allow us to give a quick introduction to Malala Yousafzai, who at age seventeen became the youngest ever Nobel Prize laureate when she was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Kailash Satyarthi, for advocating the right of all children to education. Prior to this, when she was just eleven years old, Malala had been writing an anonymous blog for the BBC detailing her life under Taliban occupation, and her views on promoting education for girls in her native Swat Valley. She rose to public prominence, speaking regularly in the Pakistani press, until in 2012 a Taliban gunman boarded her school bus and shot her in the forehead – an assassination attempt that Malala miraculously survived. Now living in Birmingham with the rest of her immediate family, Malala has been a vocal activist for freedom and education ever since; when she’s not too busy studying for her A Levels, that is.
Joined by Walter Parkes – one half of the husband and wife producer team behind He Named Me Malala, and such films as Catch Me If You Can and The Kite Runner – Ziauddin Yousafzai and I spent the morning discussing the new biopic about his daughter Malala, which makes its network premiere tomorrow at 9pm on National Geographic. The conversation travelled from why Malala’s story is so important, to his views on patriarchy and the Taliban, his family’s new life in the UK, and his wife’s struggles with autocorrect. Here’s what Yousafzai and Parkes had to say in our time together.
It becomes immediately evident from the title and trailer of He Named Me Malala that this is a film focussing not only on Malala’s individual achievements and heroism, but also on the relationship between a young girl and her father. Having grown up in a patriarchal society himself, I ask Ziauddin where his feminist leanings, which have greatly supported and shaped Malala’s childhood, originate from. He explains:
“Behind any mindset there are many factors. I grew up in a family of two brothers and five sisters, and my parents sent my brother and me to school, but didn’t send my five sisters. In the same house, under the same roof, I was favoured against my sisters. The male members of the family would take tea with the cream of milk, while my sisters took only tea. Chicken in my country is the most sumptuous food, and the breast and leg was eaten by we men, while the neck and wings were eaten by my sisters. I thought that if I am father to a daughter, I will keep no difference between boys and girls. It was a positive reaction to that discrimination – I would never let what happened to my sisters happen to my daughter. I was determined that Malala would live like a full fledged individual, with all her basic rights and access to education”.
“Fathers in patriarchal societies have big dreams for their sons”, continues Ziauddin. “They say ‘my son will be a doctor’, they send him to good schools, they talk to him everyday and give him extra tuition… Meanwhile, for a daughter, the only dream is to get her married as early as possible. So how can you find her wisdom if you don’t believe in her?! If you believe in her, then the world is more beautiful, and you see that women are amazing”.
On the other side of the coin, I want to know more about Malala’s brothers, whom we meet in the film. I ask Ziauddin how they have been affected by Malala’s profile:
“They’re not much affected”, he laughs. “They’re very careless boys, they don’t bother. The younger son is more extroverted, like Malala, while Khushal is more introverted. Atal nowadays ‘makes quotes’. Two or three days ago he came home from school and told me “Father, do you know I am making my own wise sayings?” So he told me one “Life is like a play, but you have to write its script itself”. I said it was okay, and after I appreciated that, now he comes to me daily with a new quote!”, Ziauddin continues.
An almost silent presence in He Named Me Malala is Malala’s mother, Tor Pekai Yousafzai, whom herself was not educated as a child. I have to ask Ziauddin whether Malala’s activism has had an impact on her mother’s learning and literacy.
“Her feelings of deprivation, and of loss for not going to school, meant she wanted to fulfil those dreams by her daughter being educated”, explains Ziauddin. “That’s why she was very supportive to Malala. If you ask her ‘why didn’t you stop your daughter in those difficult times?’, she answers ‘I wanted to say something, but I could not’! My wife now goes to an English language centre almost four or five days a week, and when she comes back from her school Malala asks her if she’s done her homework!”
“It was really painful for me as a father that whenever Malala was mentioned, her introduction was as the girl who was shot by the Taliban” – Ziauddin Yousafzai
I ask Ziauddin why is it was so important to the Yousafzai family to tell Malala’s story. He is quick and certain in his response:
“Because Malala was known as a girl who was shot by the Taliban. That was really painful for me as a father, and for my wife as a mother; whenever she was mentioned, her introduction was “the girl who was shot by the Taliban”. My people didn’t know why she was shot, and what the story was behind that shooting. This film tells that story. She was shot because she was standing for the right of education, and she was shot because she was standing for her values of freedom and independence. That’s why we wanted this story to be known to the world”, he explains.
Furthermore, Ziauddin is confident that the film has broader implications. “This is not the story of just one girl”, he says. “It is the story of millions of girls who are out of school, and it is the story of millions of refugees as well, as we have been out of our home for three months. We’re IDPs – internally displaced people. We know how difficult it must be for Syrian refugees who are displaced inside their country. Some two million children are unable to go to school, and seven hundred thousand children who are in Jordan and Lebanon and the neighbouring countries also don’t have any access to school”.
“This story is not about politics. This story is about basic human needs which are universal”, Ziauddin continues. “Every girl needs education; every father should support his daughter; every mother should support her daughter; every father and mother should believe in equality within their sons and daughters. That’s why this message is like Shakespearean drama! It will go on for many many years, and I see a very big positive impact coming from it”, he says.
I ask Ziauddin for a tangible example of Malala’s impact on young people. One in particular springs to mind:
“We receive many good wishes cards, and also every week there is a bunch of assignments done by children in different schools, which teachers very kindly send to us”, he says. “I try to go through them, but it’s very difficult to read all of them. Sometimes we get something really interesting though. For example, a girl from India who is a bit younger than Malala wrote to her saying ‘Malala, you have inspired me a lot. At first I wanted to become a doctor, but now I want to become a politician. I hope that one day I can become the Prime Minister of India, and you become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and then we will make peace”! It was so inspiring”, he tells me.
“Many families have named their daughters after Malala”
Never short of answers to my questions, a proud Ziauddin continues to tell me about his daughter’s positive impact on the world. “One person called me from Karachi and told me that “Malala is so inspiring that when I saw her on talkshows in Pakistan, I admitted my five daughters to school”. There are many many stories like this, and I can even tell you that many families have named their daughters after Malala”, he beams.
There is of course another major strand to He Named Me Malala besides this amazing girl and her supportive family, now living in exile in Birmingham. Producer Walter Parkes tells me more about his motivations to get the film out to the world:
“It became evident from our very first meeting with the Yousafzai family – and we didn’t realise this till we were there – what we really wanted to make the movie about. We live in a world where everything that has to do with Islam is demonised, or represented as ‘the other'”, explains Parkes. “I recall sitting in the living room of this family, and seeing these boys come home and kind of rattle through the house, and hearing the good natured squabbling, and support, and humour that is common to all families. It just struck me what an opportunity this was. If we could authentically share a non-demonised, positive, and truthful view of what the great majority of Islamic families are about to a wide global audience, then that in itself can be of great value”.
On the subject of Islam and the media, the ever sage Ziauddin closes our conversation by weighing in on terrorism:
“This is my personal experience of the Taliban and other terrorist groups; they are much more afraid of a girl with a book, or a boy with a book, than of a drone. That’s why in December 2014 they attacked a school in Peshawar, and in January this year they attacked a university nearby. They know the power of education, and if they can realise how powerful it is, then we can see how much it is needed for our younger generations”.
He Named Me Malala premieres tomorrow, Tuesday March 1st, at 9pm on National Geographic Channel.