Toor Pekai grew up without having been to school but is now getting an education thanks to her inspirational daughter
THE MIRROR: As a child, Toor Pekai would drip ink on her clothes, pretending she was at school, because like most girls in her Pakistani village, she was never taught to write or read.
Fast-forward three decades, and a 15-year-old girl also desperate to learn
was shot three times on a school bus in Pakistan and left for dead by the Taliban for refusing to give up going to class.
But Malala Yousafzai survived after specialist treatment in Birmingham.
And she showed the Taliban what a girl could achieve by becoming a world-wide star, earning straight As at GCSE, and in 2014 becoming the youngest ever person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Toor Pekai is so inspired that now, at 44, she is finally going to school.
But of course, she could not fail to be inspired – Malala is her daughter.
As Malala’s star has risen, Toor Pekai has remained silent – but today, she has agreed to give her first press interview.
The softly-spoken mum explains that, thanks to her little girl, as well as learning to speak English, she is now learning to read and write – something she could never do in her own language, Pashto.
She says: “Malala told me ‘You are clever, you must go to school’. I said ‘I can’t do it’ but she said sometimes she can’t learn things either, it happens to her as well, and not to be disheartened.
“She tells me to get to my lessons on time. She checks my homework and when I say ‘I’m too tired, I’ll do it tomorrow’, she says ‘Do it today’. If I get poor marks she says to try harder.
“She even helps me write text messages on my phone.”
But with a twinkle in her eye, she makes it clear she’s still boss. “I still tell her to tidy her room, and to go to sleep when she is messaging her friends,” she laughs.
Toor Pekai speaks through her husband Ziauddin, 46, who is fluent in English and runs a school for boys and girls in Pakistan.
She is a woman of strong opinions – Malala takes after her mum, she insists.
“Malala has passions, she is clever, brave and bold. She is witty. But that sharpness comes from me,” she says.
“I had this capability and courage. I think I could have done the same as Malala if things had been different.”
Looking at the usually shadowy figure, now dressed immaculately in bright yellow, with red and gold heels and her nails painted a defiant hot pink, it is suddenly easy to believe.
She says: “My uncles told a story as an example to girls to keep us obedient, patient and passive.
“They said if the town was on fire the women would still not look up. Girls were so shy, even if there was a fire, they looked down.
“I said: ‘They should have looked up!’ It made me feel angry.”
So Toor Pekai has always supported her daughter’s fight against the Taliban, despite fearing for her life.
This has, of course, left her with a heartbreaking conflict – as a woman she shares Malala’s spirit, but as a mum she blames herself for allowing her daughter to get so close to death.
“Malala was speaking the truth,” she says, explaining why she never stopped her campaigning for a girl’s right to an education.
But she adds, quietly: “I thought we should have moved her to a different place. Maybe we didn’t take enough care.
“I imagine what Malala must have gone through. Sometimes I struggle to sleep.”
When the Taliban took over Swat in 2007, killing, destroying schools and forcing women to wear burkas, Malala wrote a blog at the age of 11 for BBC Urdu, and became famous.
Ziauddin and Toor Pekai never thought the Taliban would target a child, especially a girl.
So she and Ziauddin were distraught as they watched their daughter fighting for life in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.
Fragments of bone had entered the membrane of her brain, and her organs were shutting down.
The left side of her face drooped – a vital nerve had been severed – and her hair was shaven.
Toor Pekai wipes her eyes with her scarf and says: “We told her she was brave and beautiful, but that night we cried, it was a long night.”
Following the assassination attempt in October 2012, the Yousafzais have re-built their life in Birmingham.
As well as obtaining six A*s and four As at GCSE, Malala has met President Obama and the Queen.
She is lauded by politicians and celebrities alike – although her new school pals were impressed less by Obama, and more by David Beckham presenting her with a Daily Mirror Pride of Britain award.
Now 18 and studying ferociously for her A-levels, she plans to go to university and wants to become a politician.
But while Malala grew up with her two younger brothers in Swat’s city of Mingora with a forward-thinking father, Toor Pekai’s childhood in a village was very different.
“I used to fetch water from the nearby stream,” she says.
“I went to school for a few months until I was six but it was only boys, no girls.
“I felt lonely so I stopped going. It was not a normal thing to send a girl to school.”
As she got older, she felt trapped – hence the ink stains, her own wishful protest. When I saw pens and books I became anxious I was not educated.”
After becoming a mother, Toor Pekai was too busy with the children to learn. “I feel I was able,” she says.
“But I encouraged my daughter and my husband to do what I could not do because of cultural norms.
“I would have done it even more vehemently. Her activism was my heart’s voice.”
In a recent film documentary about Malala’s life, He Named Me Malala, the schoolgirl mentions her mother’s strength.
“She is the person behind both of us,” Malala says, of herself and her father.
Ziauddin is an adviser to Gordon Brown, UN special envoy on global education.
But Toor Pekai is the first to respond when asked about David Cameron’s pledge to give £20million to help women in the UK learn English.
The PM suggested the language barrier in Muslim communities left them more “susceptible” to extremism.
She will not be drawn into political comment, but says: “Learning English makes you independent.
“You don’t need to depend on others, it makes you free.”
But in terms of extremism, she is dismissive. “It’s not about language, it’s about education,” she says.
And Cameron’s suggestion that failing to learn could affect asylum status, is “unfair”.
She says: “Motivation is more powerful than reprimands.”
Living in the UK has been hard, says Malala’s mum, but she adds: “I would live for my daughter in a jungle or a desert.”
She isn’t keen on the cuisine – but laughs: “We like cappuccino!”
And although she says people have always made them feel welcome, she feels “homesick” at times, “like a guest”.
She admits she is “freer”. And above all, she is free to learn. But she insists she makes sure life in the Yousafzai household is not all about study.
Malala is so studious, her mum says she was more nervous about her GCSE results than collecting her Nobel prize.
Toor Pekai loves to laugh. And she is keen to instil her sense of fun in Malala.
“Sometimes I tell her ‘don’t worry about the books’,” she says. “I bring her nice clothes. I tell her to sleep and eat well and have some fun!” she smiles.
Mums generally know best – sometimes, even more than Nobel prize winners.
THE PASHTUN TIMES