Malala and the Delhi gangrape victim: In praise of their fathers

“I am proud of her," declared the Delhi gang rape victim's father in an interview to a British newspaper, "Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks."

He is proud, however, not of her as she is today in death -- a victim of a vicious assault -- but as she was in life: "Her main aim was that our family shouldn’t have to suffer any more. She wanted to put the difficult life behind us, wipe out our poverty. She also wanted to make sure I didn’t have to keep working hard late in life."

His 'Bitiya', as she was affectionately called in her family, was a strong and independent young woman, no less ambitious than any son. The confidence that spurred this airport worker's daughter to seek a better life was the same that fuelled her resistance to her rapists, who punished her for such unthinkable temerity.

Ziauddin Yousafzai: AP

On the other side of the world, another proud father received an award for courage on behalf of his brave daughter. "In my part of the world, fathers are known by their sons. Daughters are very much neglected. I am one of the few fortunate fathers who is known by their daughter," said Ziauddin Yousafzai of his 15-year old Malala in his acceptance speech for the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Womens' Freedom in Paris.

The two men are oceans and worlds apart. Ziauddin is an educationist and former principal who has received countless death threats for his campaign to educate girls in Swat valley. The grieving father in Delhi is a rural migrant who earns a paltry Rs 7000 as a loader at the airport.  A man who sold his small plot of land to educate his children so they could escape the grinding poverty of his own life.

But what they share in common is far greater: an invaluable love for their girl child. Both are traditional men who overturned a lifetime of cultural conditioning to raise remarkable, modern daughters. Ziauddin would not allow documentary filmmaker Adam Ellick to talk to his wife, who he never quite treated as an equal. Yet, as Ellick observes, "He adores his two sons, but he often referred to Malala as something entirely special. When he sent the boys to bed, Malala was permitted to sit with us as we talked about life and politics deep into the night."

Countless men like these have played a critical role in shaping a new generation of brave, young women on the subcontinent. While there is no doubting the importance of maternal love, we often overlook the critical role a father plays in shaping a girl's self esteem.

"A daughter's sense of self will continue to be shaped by the object lessons her father shares about how men treat women. Her sense of confidence as a woman will be shaped by how he reacts to her as a man," notes psychologist Peggy Drexler. This is likely all the more true in our part of the world where the father looms large as the head of the household, where his approval is decisive in all matters. His love is therefore all the more precious, more so when he teaches his daughter to value herself as a human being -- even in a society that rarely affords her that privilege.

In this dark time, even as we wring our hands in despair over khap panchayats and gang rapes, the rapacious lust and tyranny of men, let us not forget this: Behind many a strong woman stands a proud and loving father.