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.