Reviewed by Liz Dexter
I received a copy of this book by Malala Yousafzai’s father from NetGalley and then managed to find a copy of her own I Am Malala, which I read first. This is actually the right way round to do it, as this current book assumes a bit of knowledge about who Malala is, what happened to her and what she stands for, but fills in the context around what amounts to an extraordinary family, with a brave mum stepping out from a life that was all she could expect to know and a passionately feminist father with a need to push for equality, but also a family of a mum and dad and three kids who have their own quite normal relationships and issues. I expected this book to be a bit more political, historical and, to be honest, hard-going than it turned out to be: it’s a clearly written and expressed, very honest and very readable volume.
The most important and outstanding thing about Ziauddin Yousafzai is that from a very early age, even though there was no reason to be, even though he wasn’t raised any differently from anyone else in the small part of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, even though he was celebrated as a son and given special treatment, he was, and remains a feminist and an outspoken fighter for equality. Why this should be is not clear, but he’s very strong on how it dawned on him that his sisters were not treated equally with him and his brothers. He didn’t have the best time with his father himself, being ruled with a rod of iron and being deprived opportunities that didn’t fit with what his father wanted for him, but he could see that he could at least perceive those opportunities.
But he didn’t call himself a feminist: that word didn’t exist in his upbringing:
When it was explained to me, I said, ‘Oh, I have been feminist for most of my life, almost from the beginning!’ While living in Pakistan, I saw my own shifting ideas to be based more on love, decency, and humanity. I simply wanted, and continue to want, for girls everywhere to live in a world that treats them with love and meets them with open arms. I wanted then and still want the end of patriarchy, of a man-made system of ideas that thrives on fear, that dresses up suppression and hatred as the tenets of religion, and that at its heart fails to understand the beauty to be had for us all living in a truly equal society.
He says this early in the book as he sheds a tear when the head of an Oxford college makes his daughter a cup of tea and she’s passed the tea before he is given his: a complete reversal of his early life, where the women of the house spent their time making everything perfect for the men while denying themselves.
He explains that he always wanted a daughter and knew exactly how he would raise her:
I knew what kind of father I was going to be if I was ever lucky enough to have a daughter. I was completely clear about it. I was going to be a father who believed in equality, and believed in a girl as she grows into a woman, and how raises her so that she believes in herself, so that in her life she can be free as a bird.
Now, we can argue about nature and nurture, can’t we, but what is clear is that the extraordinary Malala would not have got as far as she has without this background and this amazing man pushing her onwards and opening the gates of education for her. They form a great team, and still work together on the Malala Foundation. But he doesn’t idolise her and put her on a pedestal, and he’s very honest on the family dynamic and especially his relationship with his own sons.
It’s clear here that nature does play a part: older son Khushal is not keen on his books and they clash over this for a while, especially when they’ve moved to Birmingham and they are both isolated and surrounded by this new culture. He feels he let Khushal down in a way that his own father did not let him down: “My father might not have had money, but he gave me his full attention”. It’s not all doom and gloom and fights, though – he finds a way to be at peace with his son and is funny and open about his younger son Atal, who doesn’t really remember Pakistan, fitting in with the local community and demanding that odd thing, a ‘sleepover’ with his young friends. Meanwhile, his wife Pekai is busy learning English and making full use of the shopping facilities in the Bull Ring!
Malala’s book ends with a sense of longing to return to Pakistan and so it’s both moving and satisfying to read about their return to their country after the events in her book. He’s honest about his fears that he exposed her to danger by facilitating her telling her story and joining in with his activism, and it’s an honest, brave but ultimately very readable story that should be read in conjunction with Malala’s if you can.
Liz Dexter blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Ziauddin Yousafzai with Louise Carpenter, Let Her Fly: A Father’s Journey and the Fight for Equality (WH Allen, 2018). 978-0753552964, 176 pp., hardback.BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link)