Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala Yousafzai—international women’s education activist and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner—was invited by TED to share his experience as a mentor and father to his influential daughter. His words were both wise and simple. What had he done to make Malala “so bold and so courageous and so vocal and poised?” “Don’t ask me what I did,” he instructed, “ask me what I did not do.” Ziauddin concluded his TED Talk with the now famous phase, “I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.”
Malala Yousafzai challenged the ugly face of patriarchy and endured threats, injury, and harsh criticism in the name of justice for women. Significantly, her father takes no credit for her strength or her accomplishments.
Ziauddin offers the simplest of explanations of his role in her success—Malala had a gift for leadership and her father paved the way for her to use it. Malala was able to refine the tools she already had—strength, poise, intelligence, and courage—in part because her father was able to see past the patriarchal messages of society to his daughter’s worth.
Instead of standing in Malala’s path, he stepped to the side, making way for the opportunities that would lead her to become a global emblem of justice, freedom, and female empowerment. Where some fathers cripple, diminish, and punish, Ziauddin accepted, supported, and empowered. He refused to see Malala’s gender as a liability. He affirmed the humanity of his daughter. He also affirmed her femaleness. He chose to become an ally to his daughter. That choice can make all the difference in the world.
A father is very often a major player in the team of people that shapes a woman’s identity and self-worth. In a single parent household, a father may be the primary influence over his daughter’s developing self-concept. In some cases, the acceptance or rejection of a father or father figure will follow a woman her entire life, reinforcing deep insecurities and crippling her ability to compete and excel as an adult.
Being the father of a daughter growing up in a world shaped by patriarchy is an ongoing battle. Young girls face oppression and marginalization in their everyday lives. Being an ally to a daughter in this context is not an easy weight to carry, and the vocation of fatherhood is easily abused.
Fathers often have notable power over their daughters, awarded to them by benefit of relationship, societal custom, and sometimes, as a consequence of male privilege. Some fathers view their daughters through a narrow lens of female submissiveness. In a patriarchal context, a father can attempt to use his power to mold his daughter’s behavior, appearance, and identity into his own image of ideal womanhood.
Oftentimes, this means that women are conditioned to avoid leadership positions and inhibited from self-expression that breaks with gender expectations. Essentially, a daughter learns to deny her instincts for leadership, swallow her boldness, and reject her God-given gifts in favor of a patriarchal prescription for passive womanhood.
When a father uses his power to limit his daughter’s potential for leadership based on her gender, he diminishes her humanity. He observes his daughter’s femaleness and judges her to be lacking. She is without, not whole, “other,” and secondary to all men. She is the supporting character in a man’s story, a second-class citizen in a man’s world. She does not fit patriarchy’s narrow snapshot of womanhood. The father rejects his daughter, often without even realizing he has done so.
But the damage is already done. When a daughter is unable to conform to her family’s expectations of femininity and her father (or mother) fails to accept her, she is faced with two options. She can either accept her parents’ rejection or she can spend her life rejecting herself. There is a fracture that accompanies either choice. If she ignores her own identity and embraces her parents’ prescription for womanhood, she lives a lie and cannot fully glorify God with her gifts. On the other hand, if she accepts her parents’ rejection and embraces her gifts, she must swallow the bitter disappointment of a family who refuses to celebrate her God-given identity.
Women certainly can and do succeed and flourish without the approval of their fathers, but this should not be necessary. A father’s chief mission should be to empower his daughter as she is, not as he wishes her to be.
Women internalize messages about their “supporting” role in society and in the church, translating them into conclusions about their own worth. Many women in the church endure ongoing psychological distress because patriarchal theology has convinced them of their inferiority. When women live as second-class citizens in the Christian sphere, the church fails to live out the portrait of community painted in Galatians 3:28. Women with warrior spirits who yearn to lead are passed over, the wind knocked out of their Holy Spirit-inspired sails. Women who are fulfilled in singleness or who choose not to have children judge themselves as inadequate.
Further, the message of female inferiority can affect how a woman sees God. This is further complicated when God is singularly framed as God the Father. Daughters who have known injustice and oppression at the hands of their earthly fathers may conclude that God has likewise rejected them based on their gender.
The consequences of a single definition of womanhood are devastating. And, this definition of womanhood is too often shaped by the words and actions of men, many of whom are fathers.
So, fathers, honor the vocation of parenthood in a sinful, patriarchal world. Affirm the femaleness of your daughters, sisters, wives, coworkers, and friends. Welcome the blessing of daughters—equal to sons in potential, giftedness, and worth. Reject sinful, patriarchal beliefs and embrace the role of ally and advocate. Step to the side and clear the path for your daughters to become leaders and world-changers. Model mutuality and co-parenting in your homes and familial relationships. Honor the wisdom, courage, and power of your daughters. Above all, dear fathers, labor unrelentingly toward a day when all daughters will be born into a world where their fathers recognize and affirm their God-bestowed worth.
I offer these words in the hope that when people ask what fathers are doing to make daughters into wise and courageous leaders, that those fathers will be able to echo Ziauddin Yousafzai’s inspiring words: “don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.”