Correction Appended: Oct. 17, 2012
Malala Yousafzai is only 14 years old, but she has always come off as preternaturally mature, able — even at 11 — to talk about serious issues like education and terrorism and her native Pakistan’s troubled relations with India. The attempt on her life and the ensuing medical emergency have made her a hero to a greater audience. But in the patriarchal and conservative Muslim world she grew up in, a pioneer like Malala would not have been possible without another hero: her father.
The saga “is a story about a father and a daughter, more than a story about a girl,” says Adam Ellick, a journalist and documentary filmmaker who covered the 2009 shutdown of the schools in the Swat Valley because of Taliban threats that led to the displacement of the Yousafzai family and thousands of others. Ziauddin Yousafzai founded the Khushal School and College that his daughter attends in the city of Mingora. Says Ellick: “ Her father has a sort of revolutionary commitment to his cause. He is an incredibly unique and complex person.” Mustafa Qadri is a Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International who knows Malala’s father well. Describing him as a “folk hero in Swat,” Qadri says, “He’s a deeply religious man, in the best sense of the term. I remember him constantly talking about his Islam and that it tells him to get his daughter educated and to make sure that women get the same rights as men.” Ziauddin, he says, “is very brave, very eloquent, as is Malala.”
“I can’t imagine being his child and not fully taking on everything he says,” says Ellick. “He has an evangelical way about him. I can’t imagine having breakfast every morning of my life … and not having what he believes in become what I am going to believe in.”
Indeed, in a section of Ellick’s documentary filmed in 2009, Ziauddin talks about how he wants his daughter to become a politician, not a doctor. It then cuts to Malala saying she wants to become a doctor because she doesn’t like politics. Ziauddin, however, is adamant: “I see great potential in my daughter that she can do more than a doctor. She can create a society where a medical student would be easily able to get her doctorate degree.” The father’s ambition seems to have won out. In a video clip recorded two years later, Malala is quite clear that she wants to become a politician.
Still, the Yousafzais, says Qadri, were “ordinary people made extraordinary by this ridiculous situation” created by the Taliban paranoia about secularization. “This is no elitist Karachi family with cousins in London,” says Ellick. “They are lower-middle-class peasants. They are villagers. Their relatives all live within a short walk.”
Ziauddin seemed very aware of the danger his family was in. Locally it was rumored that his school was funded by the U.S., which made him more of a target for the militants. He was certainly on the Taliban death list; he used to sleep in a different place every night in order to protect his family. “We spoke so many times about death and martyrdom,” says Ellick. But “all of those conversations were about him being the bull’s-eye, not Malala.” Malala’s shooting has devastated Ziauddin, Ellick has heard from a close friend of the Yousafzais. “One friend met him for half an hour, but they didn’t utter a sentence together. They just cried together for half an hour.”
According to Qadri, Malala is still in critical condition but the situation is no longer life-threatening. According to Ellick, Malala called one period of her life “the darkest days in Swat”: the 2009 Taliban shutdown of the Swat schools forced her family to live in a camp for displaced people. These days, however, are darker still.
Correction: The original version of this story stated that the entire Yousafzai family had traveled to Birmingham, England to be with Malala. The hospital trust in Birmingham clarified that the family remains in Pakistan.