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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.