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The path of most resistance

In the days immediately after she was shot in the head by the Taliban just over a year ago, when it wasn't clear whether she would live, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai's father, Ziauddin, spoke with a friend whose own gifted teenage daughter had died after an epileptic fit some months before.

In the days immediately after she was shot in the head by the Taliban just over a year ago, when it wasn't clear whether she would live, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai's father, Ziauddin, spoke with a friend whose own gifted teenage daughter had died after an epileptic fit some months before.

"Tell me", he asked the other man through tears, "how can one live without daughters?"

Ziauddin Yousafzai's attitudes were very different from those of most of the Pashtun men he'd grown up with in the remote Swat Valley in Pakistan, with its ancient tribal code elevating male honour above all else.

When Malala was born, the neighbours came to her parents' village home to commiserate over the arrival of a girl. As the celebrated Pakistani school girl writes in her biography published this week: "I was a girl in a land where rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children."

But her father, she says, "looked into my eyes after I was born and fell in love".

Speaking by phone from New York this week, the young activist said her father had from the start "accepted me as a free human being ... he accepted me with equal rights with my brothers".

His influence on her life is markedly evident from her book, I Am Malala, which was released just days before the announcement of the winner of this year's 2013 Nobel peace prize, for which she was the youngest ever nominee.

Her cause, the right of every child to schooling, has been shared with him. Her confidence, rhetorical skills and outspokenness were honed in a domestic and school environment he shaped.

When Ziauddin set up his own school, the Khushal school in Swat Valley's major town of Mingora, she attended from an early age, often sitting in on the classes for older children.

When the Pakistani Taliban began dominating the politics of the valley, shutting down schools for "unIslamic" ways, he found ways to keep his school under the radar for as long as possible.

And when others started bowing to the diktat of the Taliban - who demanded an end to singing, dancing, television, most children's games, and, of course, the education of girls - neither father or daughter were silenced.

Now, as often happens with gifted children, the pupil has outshone the master. The address she delivered so powerfully to the United Nations on her 16th birthday in July, her face still showing traces of the near-fatal wound she'd suffered nine months before, was watched around the world. Again there was a family legacy to draw on.

Her grandfather, she says, was renowned for the passionate speeches he gave in local mosques. Her father had forced himself to overcome a stammer by entering public speaking competitions from boyhood. "Perhaps it's a genetic kind of thing" she said from New York this week, "but apart from that, when you do it more and more, you get better at it."

Malala's very public opposition to the Taliban crackdown on girls' education in the Swat Valley had won her the national peace prize in her own country in 2011. But it was the cold-blooded attempt to execute her as she rode home in the back of a small school bus on October 9, 2012, that propelled her into the international spotlight. While one man was distracting the driver, another, face hidden by a handkerchief, climbed on to the tailboard of the Toyota van, demanded to know who Malala was, and fired three shots, one of which went through her left eye socket. Two girls sitting next to her were also wounded.

The bullet which entered her head severed a facial nerve, and sent bone fragments into the membrane surrounding her brain.

Initially she was rushed into intensive care at a military hospital in Peshawar where doctors removed part of her skull to relieve the swelling. But she went into rapid decline and the next, critical stage of her treatment almost fell hostage to politics.

With offers of help pouring in from specialist Western hospitals, Pakistani army leaders were adamant that the Americans should not be involved because of "ongoing bad relations" between the two countries in the wake - among other things - of the US raid on Osama bin Laden's last hideout.

The British government also offered to fly her out, but again, Pakistani authorities were reluctant because of loss of face. A solution was found when the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates offered the use of their private jet to fly her to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. So tight was the security around her evacuation that roads to the airport were closed, and army snipers kept watch from buildings lining the route.

Malala and her family remain in Britain while she finishes her education, but it's clear that life there has been a cultural shock, particularly for her deeply traditional mother Tor Pekai, who cannot read or write, speaks only her native Pashto fluently, and is aghast at the skimpy clothing favoured by British girls even in the depths of winter.

Malala writes of missing her Pakistani school friends, and momentarily sounds like any other 16 year old trying to find her place in the world. But she has vowed to return to Pakistan to continue her advocacy, despite renewed threats against her in recent days from Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid.

"The soil of Pakistan is waiting for me and I need to work there, I need to fight for my people" she told Fairfax Media this week.

She has already launched a fund in her name, which she says has helped 40 girls in her home region of Swat to leave child labour and return to school. The foundation is paying the families monthly stipends to compensate them for the loss of their daughters' earnings.

Ultimately, she has ambitions for the Malala Fund to build schools, train teachers and endow girls who are "fighting for their rights, help them to speak up globally".

Even changing the deeply embedded prejudices of the men of the Swat Valley is a challenge, it seems, she is willing to take on.

"This was the culture that we Pashtuns made, and now this is the culture that we can change" she says. "If we work hard for it, and I speak up for it, and if we sit down and we think, we can change our culture and norms and tell future generations through education that they must not follow the traditions that go against the rights of women."

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