The shooting of Malala Yousafzai has shocked an unshockable Pakistan

The 14 year old was shot at close range because "she was speaking against the Taliban".

It takes a lot to shock Pakistan, given the frequency of bomb attacks, targeted killings, and other violence. But the shooting of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban yesterday has left the nation reeling. Popular talk show host Hamid Mir summed up the mood last night when he said: "I can see the whole nation's head bowed in shame today. I want to ask those who shot a girl, who only wanted to go to school: do you think you are Muslims?"

Yousufzai came to public attention for her blog detailing what life was like under the Taliban, who temporarily took control of her native Swat Valley in 2009. She has been on the militant group's "hit list" since the start of the year. Although her family have said they have received death threats, nothing could have prepared them for the brutality and abruptness of the attack.

She was sitting with classmates on a school bus in Mingora, a city in the Swat valley, preparing to drive home after morning classes. According to eyewitnesses, a bearded man entered the bus and demanded that Malala be identified. He shot her at close range in the head and the leg, also injuring two of her classmates. She was rushed to hospital before being taken in a military helicopter to an intensive care ward in Peshawar. The bullet to the head, which missed her brain, had lodged in her neck. It has now been removed but she remains in a critical condition.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying that if she survives, another attempt will be made on her life. “She was pro-west, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told Reuters. “She was young but she was promoting western culture in Pashtun areas.”

In 2009, the government effectively ceded control of the Swat Valley, a beauty spot beloved of Pakistani tourists, to the Taliban. Their takeover saw closures of girls' schools, men being forced to grow beards and the beheading of opponents. Aged just 11, Yousafzai wrote a blog for BBC Urdu under the pen-name of Gul Makai, expressing her anxiety about what was happening around her and her fears that her education would be stopped. After a military offensive in Swat later that clear, the Taliban was largely cleared out of the area. Yousafzai was awarded the country's first National Peace Award, and appeared on national television, carefully sticking to her concerns about education rather than broader criticism of the militants. "I don't mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one,” she told one station.

The bravery is quite astonishing, when you consider the fact that major politicians and indeed, entire governments, have shied away from making such bold statements against the Taliban. The aim of the attempted assassination, of course, was to spread fear and discourage anyone else from speaking out against militancy. Sadly, this has previously proved all too effective in Pakistan. When two ministers calling for reform of the blasphemy law were murdered last year, the government’s response was not to stand tall in the face of violence, but to shelve the reform altogether. Attacks by extremists on the country’s Shia minorities - including some chillingly similar assaults on buses - have gone unpunished and practically unnoted. All of this adds up to a culture where extremists can act with impunity. 

It is a bold statement in itself that this attack was possible in an area so heavily fortified by the army. Following the military operation in 2009, top command claimed that they had cleared the region of Taliban militants and destroyed their network. Some have seen this attack, along with other recent incidents in the area, as a sign that the Taliban is making a comeback in the area. While that may be jumping the gun, it certainly shows that they are functional. Some fear that it could herald a new spate of killings.

Politicians across the board have condemned the attack, with government and opposition united in their prayers for Yousafzai. Newspapers and broadcast networks have also been unanimous in their condemnation. Nor is revulsion at the incident limited to educated, liberal circles, with Radio Pakistan’s Peshawar studio fielding hundreds of calls from outraged residents of the city. Protests have been held in Peshawar, Multan and Mingora (Malala’s hometown). Another is expected in Lahore.

Although some have suggested that this may have been a step too far, the moment that will turn the public decisively against the Taliban, such a view is optimistic. The Taliban, after all, are not in the business of winning over hearts and minds. Has the shooting compounded fear? Yes, certainly. Yousafzai’s father has already expressed anxiety about girls in the area being too afraid to attend school, and there can be no doubt that activists will be even more concerned for their safety than they are already. Will it succeed in silencing Yousafzai and other courageous, educated women speaking out against the tide of militancy? As one brave 14 year old fights for her life, we can only hope that it will not.

Activists carry photographs of Malala Yousafzai. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism