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Director of He Named Me Malala on how to raise strong daughters

Malala Yousafzai, who won a Nobel Prize for fiercely fighting for the education of girls in Pakistan, is the subject of a powerful new documentary that hits theaters this weekend. He Named Me Malala tells the 18-year-old hero’s story, which begins with her father naming her after a female warrior who was killed for speaking her voice back in the 19th century.

SheKnows caught up with the movie’s director, Davis Guggenheim, to talk about telling Malala’s story and how it changed his own views as a father.

On critics and danger

Guggenheim: A lot of people ask whether her father made a mistake letting her risk her life to speak out. He would say first of all that no one ever thought they would shoot a girl.

But also I think their faith says… you have to speak out. For them, they would do it again.

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You see, in the movie you see these critics criticize them… say her father’s pulling all the strings or she’s just his puppet. When you meet her, you know it’s not true. I think it’s very painful for them, because they can’t go back. So it’s puzzling that people criticize them for not going back. If they went back, they would be in serious danger. That’s the one thing they long to do.

On learning from Malala’s father, Ziauddin

I’m a dad; I have two daughters, and I’ve never met a Muslim family before. When I started this movie, I had no idea who I was going to meet. What I realized is that they were a family just like ours. Their kitchen table is messy; they were teasing each other and laughing. I was like, wait, they’re just like us.

To think that I could learn from this father. He had a lot to teach me about how to raise my daughters. I want my daughters to feel as confident as Malala does.

On what drives Malala to live a life of purpose

Partly she has an inspiring father who has a sense of mission. Partly her mother is really strong. But I think she just believes.

I think her father probably pushed her in the early days, and she said yes, I’ll do it, and she spoke out. And when she did, it felt good, and so when you don’t live a life of purpose, it’s very easy not to live a life of purpose. When you start to live a life of purpose, it feels so good you want to do it again.

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The danger is in thinking that she’s the special chosen one that’s better or smarter than everyone else. I don’t think so. I think she was an ordinary girl who became extraordinary because she made a courageous choice. And then in doing it, she never wants to stop.

On how to raise strong girls

I think too often I can give lip service — yeah, my daughters are equal to my son — but do I believe it, and do I act on it?

He [Malala’s father] believed it. She could just see it. She grew up, and she believed she was equal. When push comes to [shove] and he rolled out the family tree and there were 300 years of men on it and no women and he took out a pen and wrote her name on it, it was an act of defiance. She saw that. So it’s not enough to say your daughter is equal to your son — you have to believe it, you have to act on it. So I would go home and wonder if I was treating my daughters as equally as Zia was treating his daughter.

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Kids pick up on silent cues. I’m reading the paper in the morning — this morning — there’s this article about Putin coming in and negotiating, about sharing secret data with Iraq, and I was like, “Hey Miles, did you see this…?” and I looked across the table, and I was saying it to my son but not my daughter. And so it’s those hidden cues that I think are more important. That’s what I mean by “do you believe it?” More and more, I’m focusing on not the lip service.

On the surface, the world’s telling them they’re equal. Below the surface, the world is telling them something different, that they’re not as equal, that their voice doesn’t matter as much. What are those quiet, subtle cues that I’m giving my daughters?

Making this movie was one to show my daughters where my values are.

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