Pakistan mustn't let another young woman fall prey to the same fate as Malala Yousafzai

Samira Shackle reports from Pakistan.

Two weeks after the shooting of 15 year old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai became international news, another teenager from the same region has said she fears she is next on the Taliban’s hit list.

Two weeks before Malala was shot, a red cross was painted on the gate of the family home of Hina Khan, a 17 year old advocate of women’s education, hailing from Swat. "I removed it but someone just repainted it," said Hina’s father, Rayatullah. "Then after Malala was attacked we received telephone calls threatening that 'your daughter is next,' and 'we have already sent people to Islamabad to target her’.”

The first call threatening Hina came two days after Malala was shot, to the mobile phone of her mother, Farhat Rayat. “It was early in the morning. They asked, ‘Are you the mother of Hina Khan?’ When I replied, they said her life was in danger — and so was mine. I broke down in tears.” Since then, more threats have been issued.

The family fled their native Swat for Islamabad in 2008, after an earlier round of threats. The mountainous province, also home to Malala, was briefly ceded to the Taliban in 2009 after a sustained insurgency. Both of Hina’s parents are long-time opponents of the Taliban and proponents of women’s rights. Since 1999, they have worked to promote development and literacy programmes through their organisation.

Like Malala, Hina began speaking out for women’s education when she was very young. In 2008, aged just 12, she joined her mother in her campaign to promote literacy for women in Swat and to open a school that taught computer skills and sewing to women. Hina has attended press conferences, appeared in the national press, and in the process, become a target for extremists. “The Taliban hate me because I raised my voice in favour of girls going to school,” she has said.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this story is that the Khans have received absolutely no protection from the authorities. This is despite the fact that the Malala case powerfully highlighted how real the dangers are for women in these areas. If the state is not going to take action now, when the public mood is one of revulsion with extremism, will it ever do so? This lack of protection is not an uncommon story. When I interviewed Mukhtar Mai, victim of gang-rape and iconic advocate of women’s rights, she gave a similar account. She regularly receives death threats, but despite informing the authorities, has been given no protection.

In the wake of the Malala shooting, politicians were falling over each other in their rush to denounce the incident, offer to pay for her treatment, and condemn the scourge of extremism. Where are those voices now, when another young girl is under a direct personal threat? Malala may have been hailed for her bravery – but how will more young women be encouraged to speak out, if it is so painfully clear that the authorities will do nothing to protect them? There is no point condemning a tragedy after it has happened. To prevent further tragedies from taking place, the state must stand behind the women defending the values it claims to hold dear.

Supporters of Malala gather in Islamabad. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle