Many of you would remember the story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head on her way to school by the Taliban in 2012. She survived the attack, carried out for her efforts advocating schooling for every girl and woman.
Malala went on to win the Nobel Peace prize, moving with her family to Birmingham due to the level of potential danger to their lives. She is now a student at Oxford University and continues her global work for female education and empowerment.
Her book, I am Malala, is deeply inspiring and I encourage you to read it. But when you read a story like Malala’s, the thought can come to mind: who was around her that inspired this powerful courageous voice, especially at such a young age. Voices like this do not arrive out of a vacuum.
Malala’s voice emerged from a loving context of belief and empowerment from her parents, and perhaps most explicitly from her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai. A teacher and social activist in his own right, he has recently written his own story titled Let Her Fly: A Father’s Journey and the Fight for Equality.
As a father of two amazing daughters myself, his book moved me as deeply or even more than Malala’s. He writes with honest and humility, describing his struggles with stammering and a lifetime resistance against a stifling patriarchy in his culture and own family. Yousafzai describes in detail his own process to change his thinking, resulting in transformation in his relation to his wife and daughter, as well as his influence on his two sons.
In the foreword to the book, Malala writes that though her father was a school teacher with a resulting low salary, “For him we had what mattered most in our lives: education, respect, and unconditional love, which was enough to make us feel rich and happy.” What comes through in this book is that her father’s love gave her the power to fly, an image that comes through often.
She goes on to write of her father: “His love for me made him my shield from all things bad and evil around me. I grew up to be a happy, confident child, even in a society that was not offering the happiest outlook for my future as a woman. A deep respect for women and girls filled the home I grew up in, even when it was not mirrored in the world beyond our walls.”
Who encourages you to find your voice, and champions its expression when you do? Unfortunately not all of us have had parents like Malala’s, but who around us can have that role? And to whom can we be that kind of champion? Where does our own insecurity cause us to hold back from cheering on others around us?
Ziauddin Yousafzai is gifted with and has practiced the habit of self-reflection. As an example, he writes about his ongoing need to let go on pg. 156: “I have learned that I must not be possessive, that as my children grow older I must let go.” He writes that seeing Malala be all she can be is “a reward to me.” He even describes how he still asks her advice about problems he is encountering, including about the wisdom of his political tweets!
We are not all called to face the challenges and near death that Malala has experienced, or what her parents have lived through as well. Their short return home to the Swat valley in 2017, described at the end of this book, is deeply moving. Their hope is still strong to move home for good some day.
But we all need mentors and champions like Malala has had, starting with her parents. And we all need to look around to whom we can support in that way. Who do you encourage to fly? Who are you holding back due to your own crippling insecurity and control?
Let go, and let them fly.