Interview with Ziauddin Yousafzai

The father of the Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai on being a student leader with a stammer, returning to Pakistan and his fears for his daughter at Oxford

March 21, 2019
Source: Antonio Zazueta Olmos

Ziauddin Yousafzai is a teacher, education activist and co-founder of the Malala Fund with his daughter Malala, who was shot aged 15 by a Taliban gunman in October 2012 over her advocacy for girls’ education. In 2014, she became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and now studies at the University of Oxford. Ziauddin’s autobiography, Let Her Fly, published by Penguin, is his first book.

Where and when were you born?
April 1969 in Barkana, a village of about 200 houses in the Shangla district of northern Pakistan.

How has this shaped you?
Living in a very small village at the bottom of a narrow valley made me ask questions from a very early age. I wanted to know where the river went or what was behind the mountains on either side of me. As my brother was a teacher, I would, as a young boy, go into his classroom to help children to read – being in a classroom was very natural to me.

It was also a very patriarchal society. As a young boy I helped many of the women in my village, who could not read the letters sent to them by their sons who were working in Gulf states, and acted as their scribe when they wanted to write back. I didn’t really think about these things at the time, but witnessing this unfairness caused by a lack of education later made me reflect how I needed to put the lives of my family on a different path.

What kind of an undergraduate were you?
I was very active politically, becoming the general secretary for the Pashtun Student Federation. I was quite a popular student leader, even though I had a stammer when I spoke in front of crowds. In fact, students said they loved me more because I stammered, saying they had to listen more closely to what I said.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
I was one of the best debaters in my class and won 22 prizes at university. On one occasion, Pakistan’s education secretary presented me with one of the trophies. He was amazed that I had won so many and asked where I came from. I told him that we both came from the same valley, although his family was far grander than mine, who lived in a house with mud walls.

Another moment that stands out was when I was asked to read my essay in front of the class but was tongue-tied. My lecturer suggested someone else read, but this made me angry. I told him that my stammer was part of who I was and by not letting me read the essay, it was denying who I was. He realised his error and let me finish.

Did your time at university influence your decision to set up schools for girls in Pakistan?
When I took my master’s in English, I saw women studying together with men for the first time. I thought about the girls in my own village, including my five sisters, and asked why they couldn’t go to university. Living in the more liberal and open area of the Swat valley, where girls went to school and women were teachers also made me consider my role as an educator. Growing up in my village I was more concerned with my own studies, but that experience made me consider how everyone should have the opportunity to study.

Did you worry that your daughter would struggle when she went to Oxford, given her high public profile?
I was worried, but she is really happy at Oxford. Her friends at her college don’t treat her as “Malala, the Nobel laureate”, but as any other girl there. While her school [in Birmingham] was fantastic and tried very hard to make things normal, sometimes girls did not speak to her because she was so famous. So when I see her mixing with other students at Oxford as she does, it’s a beautiful thing for me.

Do you expect to return to the classroom in Pakistan in the near future?
I taught for 18 years, so the thing that I miss most is seeing the faces of children in the schools that I ran. And I want to go back to the school that Malala created for 200 girls in our hometown in the Swat valley, using her Nobel Prize money. It is too dangerous for me – and Malala more so. But the situation is getting better and when my children complete their education, I want to return to teaching.

Would you like to see more co-educational universities in Pakistan?
Most universities are co-educational, but there are some cultural contexts in which parents are more comfortable seeing their daughters educated separately. In these situations, they help girls and women to learn, so I can see their importance. But, as a father, I see no reason that men and women should not study together.

If you were Pakistan’s higher education minister for one day, what policy would you introduce?
The high cost of tuition means too many talented students cannot go to university, so interest-free loans would be a step in the right direction.

What keeps you awake at night?
Homesickness. Every night I see myself in the Swat valley together with those I have left behind.

How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who believed in the equality and emancipation of women. But I’m also happy to be known as the father of my daughter Malala – she is my greatest achievement.


Heather Wilson, current secretary of the US Air Force, is set to lead the University of Texas at El Paso. The five-time Republican congresswoman, who was tipped to become Donald Trump’s next defence secretary, succeeds Diana Natalico, the US’ longest serving public university president, who has led the 25,000-student campus since 1988. Kevin Eltife, who chairs the Texas system’s board of regents, said that Dr Wilson’s “broad experience in the highest levels of university leadership, and state and national government…will help ensure that [El Paso] continues its remarkable trajectory as a nationally recognised public research institution.”

Michelle Trudgett has been named the new pro vice-chancellor (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, strategy and  consultation) at Western Sydney University. Professor Trudgett will join the institution in July from the University of Technology Sydney, where she was the inaugural director of the Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges, and instrumental in developing the university’s award-winning Indigenous Graduate Attributes programme. Barney Glover, Western Sydney’s vice-chancellor, said that Professor Trudgett “has developed a reputation as a world-leading expert” in increasing Indigenous participation in higher education. “Her leadership and insights will be invaluable,” Professor Glover said.

Daniel Polsky is joining Johns Hopkins University as Bloomberg distinguished professor of health economics. He moves to the Baltimore institution this month from the University of Pennsylvania, and will hold joint appointments in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Carey Business School.

Peter Crisp, former dean at BPP Law School, is to head up the University of Law’s new Hong Kong campus, its first teaching centre outside the UK. Crisp, who joined the University of Law in January 2018, began his new role this month at the centre, which opens in September.

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