Malala Yousafzai’s father speaking at the Oxford Union on education and empowerment

This year’s National British-Pakistani Conference featured an address on education and empowerment by Ziauddin Yousafzai, whose daughter Malala was shot by the Taliban in October 2012 for her role as an activist promoting education for women in Pakistan.

Malala is being successfully treated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and has just finished her first week of school at Edgbaston Girls High School.

Ziauddin Yousafzai spoke at Oxford University about the importance of education to a democratic society, the treatment of women and girls in Pakistani society, and the importance of integration for British Pakistanis.

He was introduced by Dr Samina Khan, deputy director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford University, who spoke of her own experience growing up as a Pakistani girl in Leicester and the importance of education in allowing children to reach their potential.

Speaking in the Oxford Union, he pointed to a portrait of Benazhir Bhutto (an alumnus of Oxford University) hanging next to him, saying: ‘When I see this lady, I feel proud of her: not because she was leader of a political party, not because she was the daughter of Bhutto, but because of two things:  She sacrificed her life for a liberal, democratic and progressive Pakistan, and she has clenched an eternal position in this august institution, so I’m proud of her.’

His experience as a teacher

He spoke of his own experience as a teacher and what it has taught him about education and children, saying: ‘For the last 19 years, my life was to get up early in the morning, have simple breakfast, go straight to school to meet the teachers and children…I love all children as I love my daughter. Quoting Khalil Gibran’s saying, ‘keep me away from the greatness that does not bow before children’ he then addressed the audience, saying:  ‘You are very much important, every one of you is important to your children, both boys and girls. Everyone is unique, everyone is born once, and everyone who comes into this world has a chance, has an opportunity, to play his positive part in this world. We have a saying I will translate, which says: the oppressed people of the east and west have the same sufferings, the same trials and tribulations – and in the end, the children, whether they belong to east or west, they smile and scream the same. They laugh and cry the same. So whether they belong to east or west, they are the same. But it is we the parents, the society that make them intolerant.’

Yousafzai talked about the importance of respecting and honouring children, saying to the school pupils in the audience: ‘Every one of you has unique and immense capability and capacity. You might have heard the name of Socrates. When we start with history, knowledge, and philosophy we start with the Greeks. Socrates went to a sculptor and he asked him: ‘How did you make sure that this particular stone has a statue in it?’ The sculptor’s answer was: ‘Every stone has a statue in it, but it is quality of sculptor and where he puts the hammer and brings out the nose, eyes, and ears.’ So every one of you has capabilities, qualities, and potential. It is your responsibility and our responsibility to bring it out.’

Speaking specifically about the role of education to society, he said: ‘Education is the key to a sustainable and positive change in society…So I say give the children education and then leave it to them. Give them education and other issues will be resolved. They will have tolerance, and they will accept the otherness of others – this is most important thing. God loves diversity; god is a great lover of diversity.’

‘So education is the most important thing,’ he concluded. ‘It changes a person and it lifts up the societies. And it empowers. Think of my daughter for example. Had she not been an educated girl, would she have become an icon? Not possible. Had she not been in a school, not been writing a blog for the BBC, she would have been a girl in oblivion.’

He noted, ‘Education is powerful in conflict zones where you have to speak the truth about the situation, and also in peaceful societies where you have a role to play for the promotion and benefit of those societies. And then one more thing which is important – education must be without discrimination. With my daughter I did one thing, only one thing: I honoured her as an individual. I respected her as a person..

The treatment of women in society

Talking about the treatment of women in society, he said: ‘honour your daughters, they are human beings like your sons. And educate them, and you will have wonderful daughters, wonderful sisters and you will have a peaceful and prosperous society. Trust them, honour them and educate them. We have proverbs that say: As the father, so the son. Why not as the father, so the daughter?’

Having spoken out against forced marriages and the marrying off of young girls under the age of 18, he turned to the question of British Pakistanis integrating into the larger community, saying:

‘There are countries and societies where people – because of their poverty, or race, or because of their ethnic differences – some in society are marginalised. It happens in societies, and we have historic moments against segregation and against so many other differences. But it is very much tragic, and ironic that when you have a very open society, when you have a very progressive society, a very democratic society, you marginalise yourselves. You are selfish to live in seclusion and isolation. You close all your windows and keep only one window open. Don’t close windows; open all the windows of your mind to all kinds of ideas, to all kinds of information. In open societies, why do we opt to be isolated? In seclusion? This is very hard for me, for a community. Be here, and you can be open with all the good things of your culture.’

A call for tolerance

He concluded with a call for tolerance and interfaith harmony, quoting a Pashtun saying and translating: ‘My friend is a Hindu and I am a Muslim – but to honour my Hindu friend I will seek the temple of the Hindu worshipers.’

Co-founded by Oxford undergraduate and Birmingham native Suriyah Bi, the second annual National British-Pakistani Conference is an initiative to bring together students, academics and policy-makers to discuss and debate vital issues relating to the British-Pakistani community. A number of schoolchildren from Birmingham were among the attendees.

Now in its second year, the National British-Pakistani Conference provides a platform for the British-Pakistani community to address key issues directly affecting them, and the success of multiculturalism in Britain. Topics for this year’s discussion included Terrorism, Radicalisation and Islamophobia; Integration and Cohesion; and Sexual Exploitation, Gender and Religion.