In a well-attended session at the main hall of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, Yousafzai was a charming and inspiring presence as he retraced his life’s journey from setting up schools in Pre-Taliban Swat Valley to the dangers the family faced when Malala’s activism made them a target of the Taliban.
“Very few people in our patriarchal society are known by their daughters,” he said. “I am one of them and I am absolutely proud of it.”
Here are some take-aways from his session.
His father set him on his path
Yousafzai’s father allowed him to dream big. A well respected figure in his community, his father was the imam of the local mosque and, as was custom, it was expected that Yousafzai would follow his father and take on a more spiritual existence.
“But he was not the father of yesterday, he was a man of tomorrow,” Yousafzai said. “That’s why he sent me to school, so I can learn mathematics and the sciences. He would always tell me this life is like an open book and that I should read it. It was he who inspired me with a love for education.”
The Switzerland of the East
While Swat Valley is often associated with the wreckage of war, Yousafzai was keen to stress that there was a long period of peace before the Taliban arrived.
“I grew up in a very different environment,” he said. “Swat was a very beautiful place and it was really heaven on earth. When the Queen visited all these years ago, she was moved to call it ‘The Switzerland of the East.’
"It was a beautiful landscape and we had this great community and family atmosphere and all of that changed around 2002 and 2003 when the Taliban came.”
Confronting our prejudice
Yousafzai stated he couldn’t have encouraged Malala to be the person that she became without confronting his own limitations. As a child and teenager growing up in Swat Valley, he admitted to being a beneficiary of a deeply patriarchal system.
“You see it when you are young when your sisters are not getting milk and cream and you do, you start to think, ‘Oh, how special am I?'" he said. "When you grow up [with] those social norms you begin to feel comfortable in that.
"But as I grew up and I started to become more aware of what is going on, I realised the first person that I had to defeat in that way of thinking was me. It is after doing that you can begin making more changes.”
It was a realisation that also inspired him build schools to educate more woman in Swat Valley.
The night Malala was shot
Yousafzai recalled October 9 2012, the day that shocked the world when Taliban fighters boarded a school bus and shot Malala, as being long and excruciating.
“It was painful and traumatic because in a way I took it all for granted,” he said. “By that I mean that according to social norms and traditions, that even in a fight or a conflict you are not supposed to go after a woman or a child. So, I remember Malala and my wife being very concerned about my life.”
Yousafzai recalled being in the hospital emergency room where he was wracked with guilt.
“I asked myself, 'Could I have stopped her?' and 'Perhaps I should have stopped her from being the girl that she was,'" he said.
It was his wife, Toor Pekai, who was in the audience in Abu Dhabi, that snapped him out of it.
“She told me, 'Don’t blame yourself. You should not be repenting. Those people who attacked her should repent. They are the criminals. You and Malala stood for the right of education ... God will save her, so be strong.'"
It all begins at home
Yousafzai said he hopes Let Her Fly will inspire small and significant changes in the way men treat woman. While supportive of the growing number of social movements such as Time's Up and Me Too that are making reforms in various industries, he also said that powerful changes also begin in the home.
“Equality also begins in the family,” he said. “This book is basically a family story. In each family, every man and woman has an opportunity to build equality within this basic institution. If we can do that then it will ultimately result in wonderful societies in the future.”
As for his new life in England, Yousafzai said that no matter where you are in the world, the same challenges remain for a father.
He recalled a conversation with Malala before she went to study in Oxford in 2017: “She asked me how do I feel about her making friends and studying with boys when she is at Oxford? Like all fathers I told her that I trust her. And do you know what she replied? She said, ‘Don’t trust me.'"
The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs until April 30 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. For details, visit: www.adbookfair.com