The Taliban's ban on girls' secondary education is disastrous. For me, a teacher of 18 years, father to a daughter and whose family came horrifically close to the brutality of the group, it is nothing short of traumatic. But even in these circumstances, people have to realise there is still a great deal that can be done, particularly by men and even more so by fathers.
Malala, my daughter, nearly died as a result of the stand she took against the Taliban's ideology. She did so against their Pakistani equivalent, who in 2008 either destroyed or closed all girls' schools for students beyond the age of eight in the Swat Valley, an area they controlled in the north of the country. I am proud of her actions, because it gave the region's devastated girls a voice. But we paid dearly. Malala was left with severe injuries, which she overcame, after being shot by two Taliban gunmen on a bus in 2012. Our family paid with our home – we eventually resettled in the UK – and I with my career and mission to spread girls' education in my region and its wider Pashtun community.
I chose my profession for a simple reason: it was wrong that me and my brother but not our five sisters got an education, something that changed my inner-being beautifully and gave me the values I hold today. My parents had many dreams for this one boy but no dream for the five girls. They wanted to make me an influential, rich and famous person, but for my sisters the only dream was to get them married as early as possible.
When I thought of becoming a father, the first thing I said was that I would be different to the ones who do not send their daughters to school, like mine. I do not blame my father, however. Not only did he have to contend with his own ingrained patriarchal attitudes, but a patriarchal government and society. At the time there were hardly any schools for girls. By 2007 and 2008, the situation was so bad that I had to become an activist.
Afghanistan is not my country, but I am Pashtun, as are most of the Taliban. I feel a common feeling, then, whether oppression is in Afghanistan or Pakistan, and because of my family's own ordeal. Every night on Twitter, I count the number of days since the Taliban ban to make them accountable. It is a terrible moment for anyone sane.
It is impossible to say when or what will stop the general decline. They have a bad history with the issue. Despite talk in Doha and elsewhere to present a modern "Taliban 2.0", they are the same as they were before. This time they are simply smarter in providing excuses and playing politics.
I say jokingly sometimes that the group is wiser than some world leaders, because they, like me and Malala, know how pivotal and transformative girls' secondary education is. Primary education is tolerable for these fundamentalists; it’s okay if girls learn to read and write their names or, crucially, their husbands' names. But it is secondary education that truly empowers and enables them to enter the workplace and be independent. The reason we promote it is the reason they ban it: education breaks misogyny and patriarchal thinking.
To camouflage such policies in the name of Islamic law is deceitful. There are approximately 50 Muslim-majority countries on this planet. Afghanistan is the only one where girls’ education is banned. We are almost 1.8 billion Muslims in this world. Are all of us, bar a few thousand, wrong? I challenge the Taliban to show a single verse of the Quran, a single tradition of the Holy Prophet that dictates that a girl cannot learn or go to school. Rather, the very first word of the 96th chapter of the Quran is Iqra, or “read”, followed by a description of God as: "He who taught by the pen." These are the two actions through which people learn.
The irony is that so much of this oppression is done in the name of honour, which in patriarchal societies is tied solely to women and therefore a justification for extreme control. To men, particularly to fathers, I say let girls be your pride, not your honour. Men should earn their own honour, dependent on being truthful, honest, fair and empathetic. Everyday I try to ask my people to come out of this sickness.
For those men that are trying, it all starts with the family. Have the confidence to make your family an egalitarian institution, like I am proud that mine is. Your children will learn from what you do, not what you dictate. When a baby girl is born, the first man she meets is her father. When that first man has values of equality, love and empathy, that is all that is needed. That man is a mountain. No power can on Earth can stop that child from rising and thriving.
It is not easy to do this. Sometimes I have sympathy with men in patriarchal societies. It is so difficult to swim against the tide. In such a context, the first person you have to confront is yourself, like I did. Once you are able to defeat your own patriarchal self, a time comes when you are able to not swim against the tide, but turn the tides with you and bring change.
This is not an opportunity reserved for richer, more high-profile families. In fact, disadvantage might even speed the process along. I credit my belief in girls' education with my own experience of oppression. I saw what happened to my five sisters, but I too felt discrimination, this time at school. I was bullied for my stammer, my dark skin in a society that valued lighter skin and the fact I came from a poor family. It all made me sensitive to the evil of discrimination. I started to believe in something I call positive revenge. If somebody bullies me, I will not in return bully other, weaker people. I will be respectful.
But the most important thing to breaking these cycles remains education. It transforms people, communities and countries. It is important to remember that men gain from women's education. I want to tell all fathers: I have first-hand experience of having girls with freedom and education. It has filled my life with happiness and it has liberated me. Many brothers in patriarchal families can feel compelled to sacrifice their youth to go abroad and work so they can support multiple sisters financially and prevent them from needing to go to school. From sustenance to dowries, all depends on that one boy. Sometimes, these men can even suffer more than the women.
I give my solidarity to the men fighting for women in the media and girls education inside Afghanistan. But there are very few of them, unfortunately. It is obviously scary to do so. But it is more scary to do nothing, and deprives their nation of a prosperous future. The diaspora must do the same.
The international community must realise oppression of women is not inevitable in Afghanistan. If they think it can be contained there, they are wrong. Organisation of Islamic Co-operation countries, scholars and Pashtuns in particular must stand with women. If they recognise the Taliban, then they should prepare themselves for militant Talibanisation in other domains. Sometimes they are called Boko Haram, sometimes ISIS or ISIS-K. Different names with the same beliefs.
There should be no international recognition of the Taliban until the education and rights of women are ensured. How can the Taliban be recognised internationally if they don’t recognise half of their population? Malala once said we cannot move forward when half of us are held back. Not banning women will also be key to the wider mission of keeping Afghanistan from being a simply male Sunni Pashtun country, instead one that safeguards its other minorities, both religious and ethnic. This was what the Taliban promised the world in Doha.
The Malala Fund and the World Bank have statistics saying that if we educate all the world’s girls we will add up to $30 trillion to the world economy, let alone its positive effects elsewhere, from climate to population control. You can imagine how much money we’re wasting, particularly if it is a country such as Afghanistan, already one of the poorest nations on Earth, with the highest population growth in South Asia.
The only hope is that within the Taliban regime there are some elements that are pro-girls' education. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, has told the leadership that girls must go to school. If there are more dissenting voices, then that gives us a bit more hope.
The Afghan people, even the Taliban itself, have a historical opportunity. Fighting is not the future of Afghanistan. It has been bleeding for 40 years. It doesn’t have any more blood to shed. With dialogue there could be a greater chance of survival for both Afghans and the Taliban administration.
Ending the association of women only to the men in their family will not be easy. But it starts at the grassroots. We named our daughter Malala after the Afghan, Pashtun hero Malalai of Maiwand. The great attraction in her story was that she was known by her own name. Now, the world knows my daughter's name. Hopefully one day 20 million Afghan girls can have the same recognition, too, and become their own versions of Malalai. Education is fundamental if this is to happen.