“We don’t give women their rights in the form of charity. Women’s rights are not at the discretion of men—they are inherent,” said Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
I met Yousafzai ahead of his panel discussion at the U.N. Women conference titled ‘Building the Resilience of Women,’ held in Sharjah last week.
“As a man, I sometimes feel ashamed when I see history filled with oppression of women. And this is a sickness, when men fail to believe in a woman’s ability. We are very patriarchal in our thinking,” Yousafzai added, as we discussed how he is raising his sons to respect and empower women.
At the same event, Malala presented her key-note address.
“If my father did not allow me and encourage me to believe in my voice, I would not have been able to stand here and speak out just like many other girls in my hometown, who were not allowed by their brothers and parents,” Malala, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner to date from Pakistan, said.
Shot by Taliban militants at the age of 15 for advocating women’s education, Malala turned her ordeal into a strength and now travels the world to spread her message. However, all of this wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for her father’s support.
And it seems that, amid everyone’s focus on empowering women, the world has somehow disregarded the role that Malala’s father has played in her achievements.
For Yousafzai, the father, patriarchy inhibits women from achieving their full potential.
Gender equality and female empowerment were not only on Yousafzai’s agenda, but were also a demand put forward by officials and dignitaries who attended the conference.
“Being a girl was considered a curse for many people. And that is something that should not be tolerated…Girls are as human as anyone else…. That’s why I decided to work on this issue [empowering women] and gave up my career in 1980,” Kailash Satyarthi, Indian Nobel Peace Prize winner and activist for girl’s right to education, told Newsweek Middle East on the sidelines of the event.
It is through the work of Yousafzai, Satyarthi and others like them that one realizes the importance of men as allies and supporters in the struggle for gender equality and female empowerment.
The fight for gender parity cannot be carried out solely by women, and in that sense, a man’s support is vital.
However, it is not only regular men’s support for women that is needed. Sometimes, officials must step in to impose the change from the top to the bottom.
Recently, Pakistan’s parliament passed a landmark bill criminalizing honor killings.
Prior to that law, perpetrators of the crime benefitted from a legal loophole which allowed the victim’s family to pardon the killer.
In the past, Saudi Arabia’s late King Faisal had also advocated for educating girls and led by example, sending his own girls to school.
In that manner, it is important that leaders within their respective societies help restore and push for balance between the genders.
The past decade has been an important era for women in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region. The world’s first Youth Minister, Happiness Minister and Tolerance Minister are all women from the Arab world, especially from the Arab gulf region, and the UAE, in particular.
Mariam Mukhtiar became the first Pakistani female fighter pilot to die in the line of duty. Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco have the highest representation of female politicians including heads of political parties and members of parliaments in the MENA region.
These are but a few examples as to what empowering women could lead to.
When one talks of female empowerment, it is usually the third-world and developing nations that come in focus.
But the reality is that patriarchy reigns supreme among all societies, be it the east or the west.
Female equality is still a struggle in developed countries as well, albeit in varying degrees. Donald Trump, who could very well be leading one of the world’s superpowers, has made misogynistic remarks on various occasions, attacking the integrity of many, many women.
And equal pay for women has been on the agenda of Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for decades.
Dr. Helmut Kutin, president of the SOS Children’s Villages, and an advocate for educating girls, explained that “the cultural mindset” is what holds men back from becoming women’s allies in the struggle for equality.
“I went to a village in Africa and saw a 13-year-old sister going to school with her younger brother. The boy turned around and hit the sister. When the sister scolded him, he turned around and said: ‘Don’t you dare talk to me like that. I’m a man,’ Kutin told Newsweek Middle East.
In the MENA region, honor killings, sexual abuse, domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, and access to education are some of the most basic issues that need attention. While recent laws criminalizing honor killing in Pakistan may be a step forward, it is true what Dr. Kutin points out – the cultural mindset has to change. And this cannot be done alone. Men have to realize their importance as allies of women in the struggle for female empowerment.
“Unfortunately men…are depriving women of their best rights in the name of social taboos and social norms in our part of the world,” Yousafzai stressed.
On the other hand, change, even at a small pace, is needed. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s first female (former) foreign minister and the youngest to have held the position, told Newsweek Middle East: “I truly believe that if you impact one life, you have made a significant difference.”
Educating girls will surely make a difference because, as Kutin put it: “Girls are the future. Investing in girls will allow us to invest in the future.”