Malala Yousafzai: The girl who played with fire

The shooting of the brave child activist Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban hitman shocked Pakistan. But politicians there are less keen to confront the state’s own role in sustaining extremists.

Malala recovering in hospital in the UK with her family.
Malala recovering in hospital in the UK with her family. Photograph: Getty Images

On Wednesday 11 October, a group of schoolgirls marched through an affluent area of Kara - chi, holding banners and placards that read: “We are all Malala.” Residents of such areas seldom walk the streets, as they fear robbery or kidnap, so it was a striking move. From Lahore to Islamabad to Peshawar, similar scenes played out all over Pakistan. Both women and men held processions, candlelit vigils and public prayer sessions for Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old schoolgirl and activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban assassin who had boarded her school bus.

Malala came to public attention at the age of 11 when she began to write a blog for BBC Urdu.

It recounted what it was like living under the Taliban in the months after they took control of her native Swat Valley, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, in 2009. Written under the pseudonym “Gul Makai”, the blog described the child’s terror that her education would come to a halt. “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban,” the first blog began. “I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat . . . I was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools.”

Both Malala and most of the Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns, the group that dominates Pakistan’s north western regions and who account for more than half of the population of Afghanistan. She was given her first name, which means “grief-stricken”, after Malalai of Maiwand, a Pashtun warrior-woman. The Yousafzai, her tribe, are prominent in Swat, where her father, Ziauddin, runs a chain of schools. It was he, an educational activist, who put Malala’s name forward for the BBC blog after a producer approached him asking for suggestions.

The former princely state of Swat is a green oasis in the north-west of Pakistan previously popular with honeymooning couples. But from 2007 it became the victim of a sustained assault by the Taliban. After crossing over the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas, the militant group gradually moved down from the hills towards Swat. A military operation in 2007 failed to defeat the Islamist insurgents, and by 2009 they had gained control of as much as 80 per cent of the region. Following a period of tacit acquiescence by Islamabad, a second military offensive was mounted in May 2009, after which the army declared that the Taliban had been eliminated from Swat. After this, Malala appeared on national television to discuss the subject of girls’ education. She became a potent symbol of resistance against the Taliban and last year the Pakistani government honoured her for her activism with the country’s first National Peace Award for Youth.

Even after she was put on a Taliban hit list at the start of the year she was undeterred. “Sometimes I imagine I’m going along and the Taliban stop me,” Malala said on television. “I take my sandal and hit them on the face and say, ‘What you’re doing is wrong. Education is our right, don’t take it from us.’ There is this quality in me – I’m ready for all situations. So even if (God let this not happen) they kill me, I’ll first say to them, ‘What you’re doing is wrong.’”

On Tuesday 9 October, Malala was sitting on a school bus in her home city of Mingora, waiting to return home from morning lessons. A bearded man entered the bus and shot her at close range in the head and leg. (Two of Malala’s classmates were also injured.) She was given emergency treatment and taken to a hospital intensive-care unit in Peshawar, 105 miles from Mingora.

The extremist Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack and warned that, if the girl survived, another attempt would be made on her life. “She was pro-west, she was speaking against Taliban, and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” said a TTP spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. “She was young but she was promoting western culture in Pashtun areas.”

Fifty clerics from the Sunni Ittehad Council, one of the country’s Islamist parties, responded by issuing a fatwa that condemned the shooting as “un-Islamic”. They said that US drone attacks were no excuse for the Taliban’s action and that Islam does not prohibit the education of women.

The bullet grazed Malala’s brain and lodged in her neck. After it was removed, she was flown on 15 October to England, with her condition still critical. On arrival, she was transferred to a specialist unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. Her treatment is being paid for by the government of Pakistan.  She is in a stable condition, even communicating by writing notes, but doctors have warned that she is “not out of the woods yet”, due to signs of infection.

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In rural Pakistan, and especially in the areas of Taliban insurgency, a woman who defends her rights is taking a risk. On 5 July, a social worker and women’s activist, Farida Afridi, was shot dead in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as punishment for being an “agent of change” in the tribal areas. The incident passed without much notice.

One woman activist who agitated for change and lived to tell the tale is Mukhtar Mai, from a village in the Muzaffargarh District. In 2002 she was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council in an act of so-called honour revenge. Tradition dictates that a woman should commit suicide after a gang-rape, but Mukhtar refused and fought the case. Six of her rapists and attackers were sentenced to death for the crime but all were later acquitted by the courts. However, her struggles were reported widely in Pakistan and abroad, and she has become a prominent advocate for women’s rights.

I spoke to her on the phone from her home in Muzaffargarh, where she has opened a girls’ school and women’s crisis centre. “I feel so good about the public response to Malala,” she said, her voice firm. “She’s just a child and yet she’s fought for a nation. When they shot her, it was not just Malala who fielded the bullet; thousands of Malalas were wounded. Today it was her turn for the bullet; tomorrow it could be some other. It could be me. I pray for her.”

Mukhtar frequently receives death threats. “I get calls every couple of weeks. They ring on
three [different] telephone numbers and say obscene things and make threats,” she says. “I’ve passed the messages on to the police – not a thing is done.”

Her girls’ school was attacked by militants days before the Malala shooting. When the assailants did not find her there, they smashed the windows and beat up senior teachers. “There is always danger but the work I need to do is more important than my life. My life is in God’s hands.”

Like Malala, Mukhtar shows immense bravery, resilience and defiance. The failure of the state to provide protection for these women is symptomatic not only of a wider failure of criminal justice but of Pakistan’s ambivalent attitude to Islamic extremism.

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Malala’s shooting was condemned by politicians from various parties. Billboards have been erected around Karachi by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) displaying a photograph of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, next to an image of Malala, with the slogan “Your daughters will keep fighting”. However, many doubt that these declarations of outrage will translate into further action.

“There is no clarity from the military and security establishment on whether they wish to take on these people and ensure that they respect the rule of law, or whether they wish to use them as allies,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, director of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan. “Until they resolve this contradiction, the Taliban and affiliated groups will seek to expand political and social space. The attack on Malala is an example of just that.”

The rallies held across the country were a moving testament to public support for Malala and what she stood for. But they were nothing compared to the state-backed protests against the anti Islamic Innocence of Muslims film that swept Pakistan’s major cities several weeks previously. Mainstream political parties can easily mobilise people in their tens of thousands but they are choosing not to, perhaps because they rely on Islamist groups for votes and backing in parliament.

Nowhere has the Pakistani state’s inconsistent attitudes to militancy been felt more acutely than in Swat. In February 2009, after the Taliban had taken control of the valleys and cities of the region, the PPP-led government signed a peace deal with the Taliban that gave them de facto control of the Malakand Division, an administrative area that contains Swat. The deal was made in the mistaken belief that this would stop them from trying to take more ground. The brief period of Taliban rule in Swat was nightmarish. Men were required to grow beards and women forced into wearing burqas. Those who did not comply were publicly lashed or beheaded. More than 400 of the 1,576 schools in Swat were closed, 70 per cent of them girls’ schools. The Taliban did not stop there. Buoyed by their tactical victory, they ventured deeper into Pakistan, launching audacious attacks. Eventually the army was forced to take action. The subsequent military campaign, from May to July 2009, resulted in the displacement of two million people. Although the army claimed to have dismantled Taliban networks, most of the commanders were not captured, and three years later the leading players remain at large.

In April 2009, before the army moved in, a YouTube video prompted outrage comparable with that of recent weeks. It shows a 17-yearold woman, in a burqa and lying face down on the floor, in the Swat town of Kabal. One man holds her down by the arms and head, a second holds down her legs, and a third, facing the camera, grimly lashes her as she screams for mercy. A crowd of men, largely silent, looks on. Much as with the Malala attack, the video was a reminder of the brutality of the Taliban insurgents, and it energised public opinion. In May 2009, the military moved to recapture the Swat District.

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One recent afternoon, I visited a government school in central Karachi, a sprawling, rundown building that is facing demolition by the state. Young girls in uniform headscarves filled the playground, so that there was hardly any room to move. Open sewage ran through one section of the grounds and the roof of one of the buildings was open to the sky. Yet parents and residents of this low-income, largely Pashtun neighbourhood are fighting to keep the school open.

The fight to save the school is just one example of the premium placed on education across Pakistan – regardless of gender. “People will perhaps agree that the price of going to school is that their daughters cover their heads, because there is a political instinct to appease rather than to confront,” says Hasan from Human Rights Watch. “But it is another thing to say she will not go to school. That is something that urban Pakistan has no time for.”

The type of education on offer is not always ideal. Madrasas, or religious schools, are frequently incubators of militancy in the urban centres. Often funded by Saudi Arabia, many preach a harsh version of Islam that is at odds with the forms that are established parts of the culture in south Asia. But the reasons for their influence are not always ideological. “If you find a poor male, who is out of a job, who is hungry, who can’t feed his family, he’s prey for being picked up and being turned into a militant,” says Najma Sadeque, a journalist and feminist activist. “Most send their children to madrasas because it’s a place where they can get free meals. It’s as basic as that. By not ensuring food security, not looking into economic and social problems, the government is just breeding more and more of this militancy.”

Although the main battleground of the Islamist insurgency is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan, and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the rest of the country is far from exempt. “Militancy and extremism run the length and breadth of Pakistan,” Hasan says. “That’s why it is so difficult to address, because it has permeated society. This is not a geographical thing. It’s a social landscape issue. That requires a series of remedial short-term, long-term and medium-term measures.”

There is no mass support for the Taliban but it would be naive to suggest that they have no appeal at all. The extremists have successfully appropriated an anti-imperialist and anti-American discourse that resonates with the wider public mood. The Taliban were not a problem in Pakistan until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. American drone strikes and the associated civilian deaths as well as the assault on sovereignty have further complicated public sympathies. And conspiracy theories proliferate. Over dinner, a top lawyer very seriously told me that Malala was a “puppet of the west”. A businessman said that her shooting had “obviously” been orchestrated by the government as an excuse to delay the next election, which is scheduled for early next year.

While the dominant mood remains one of disgust and outrage about what happened, several newspapers have questioned why so much attention is being given to Malala when hundreds of nameless women and children have been killed in US drone attacks. Others repeat the widespread theory that the Taliban are being funded by Washington as a ploy to keep Pakistan unstable. “It is not just a question of one little girl’s life. It is a question of the survival of the state,” Zohra Yusuf, head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told me. “The threat has to be addressed and names have to be named.”

Above all, the attack on Malala reiterated how much the Taliban hate educated and independent women. This virulent, visceral hatred is as much founded in tribal codes as it is the product of an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam. Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, said that it was “condemnable” to justify the attack on Malala with talk of US drones and that her shooting should bring to an end all talk of negotiating with the TTP.

“The whole issue of good Taliban and bad Taliban is not valid because all Taliban are bad for women,” Haroon told me. “They have the same ideology, the same policies, the same patriarchal mindset. It doesn’t make any difference to us which type of Taliban. They are the same as far as women are concerned.”

There is fear in Pakistan. Many people do not travel without a chauffeur or an armed guard; others avoid going out on Fridays, when crowds amass around prayer time, in case of bomb attacks. But in spite of all this, women’s rights activists are refusing to be silenced. “The future is brighter,” Mukhtar Mai, the prominent advocate, says. “Women have found their voice. They use it in public to ask for their rights. You see now, even a child like Malala has the courage to speak out.

“There are dangers, but placed against the need to achieve something, to express yourself, the threat is diminished. The women here are fighting for release from their pain.”

Samira Shackle is a former NS staff writer now living and working in Karachi.