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.

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Jude Kelly’s Diary: From train travel through 80s Russia to buses around Britain

Our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

It was strange on Friday, heading off from lunch with Misha Glenny, writer of McMafia, and landing in Moscow the same evening. Misha and I spent most of our time reminiscing about his father, the renowned translator and Russian expert Michael Glenny. He and I travelled right across Russia together in 1986 accompanied by the then science editor of Pravda Vladimir Gubarev, the first journalist to set foot in Chernobyl. So great was Gubarev’s horror at what he had uncovered that he exiled himself to his dacha for months and wrote his first play, Sarcophagus, set in Hospital No 1, where all the patients, scientists, firemen, engineers and building contractors reveal to each other the massive corruption and moral culpability that led to the devastating event and their own inevitable deaths.

It was early glasnost days and all could be said, nothing was censored. The play caused shock waves right across the Soviet system and I’d been asked to direct it by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I stood in the office of the literary department in Stratford open-mouthed as Michael Glenny’s vivid translation came rolling off the fax machine, revealing the unbearable mix of human stupidity and venal desire that placed the world in such danger.

This led to our train journeys, criss-crossing the snowy landscape, to research the piece, as Michael and Vladimir gave me a crash course in Russian history while smuggling vodka into railway carriages to cope with that short-lived and doomed alcohol ban that was one initiative of perestroika. I returned to direct the play, which I’m proud to say was nominated for an Olivier award. But one thing I think we’ve all learned, and as Misha illustrated over lunch, is that our misunderstanding of Russia, in some ways, is just as great now
as it was at the time of Chernobyl.

Thawing relations

I was in Russia by invitation of the British Council, giving speeches to artists and cultural leaders about the power of culture to help us build the necessary shared understandings and beliefs. Earnest conversations but also jokes, enthusiasm, great food and no shortage of vodka reinforces that people are very different from political states.

I hate cold weather, but I went almost straight from Russia to Ottawa. Minus ten degrees. Then Banff – minus 15! The trip was partly driven by conversations with Canadian artists about climate change. The global Earth Summit happens in 2020: governments are gathering to review environmental policy and I’d been approached to curate an international festival bringing together many of the extraordinary artists and scientists working in the field. We’d met many of them during our investigation last year of the Nordic regions for Southbank Centre’s Nordic Matters festival. Canada has equally powerful thinkers: these conversations are no longer of “fringe” interest. As part of my research, in August I’ll travel to the Arctic region to meet up with artists there. More cold! Brrr!

Coaching by coach

Yesterday, I was in my hometown of Liverpool for a meeting about a new British charity that Richard Collier-Keywood and I have co-founded called Drivers for Change. Me, arts; him, business. It’s directly inspired by an Indian charity, Jagriti Yatra, that takes 400 18- to 26-year-olds on a train journey around their own country looking at social enterprise projects and giving them the knowledge and skills to return to their own communities and make change happen.

I went for several years, supporting these enthusiastic millennials. But although I loved seeing what was being done in Bangalore or Thilonia, I was struck by the knowledge that back home in Sunderland, Port Talbot or Weston-super-Mare there are brilliant examples of change to learn from, and huge problems that need innovative approaches and courage to tackle. This June, we’re inviting 100 young recruits (80 British and 20 from overseas) from all backgrounds to travel through the UK, stopping in nine towns and cities to learn from and inspire others. It launches in Liverpool on 22 June during the International Business Festival, and although it’s buses and not a romantic locomotive, we have high hopes that it will produce a cohort whose actions and energy will make a real difference.

Watching the love tug

We live beside the canal in Shoreditch, east London, and have noticed a major escalation in epic silliness. At least once a week through December and January, groups of people immersed in hot water in a large plastic blow-up bath – known as the “Love Tug” – have floated past, drinking champagne. As I write, with the faux chimney of the tug steaming away and bursts of immodest laughter tinkling across the water, one group has just drifted under our windows. Wearing nautical hats and little else, many look like stag or hen dos. What a barmy start to married life.

Goodbye Southbank, hello world

Women of the World Festival (WOW) is in Kathmandu this weekend for its second year there – the youngest, poorest democracy with some of the most powerful women and girl campaigners you could ever meet. I have just announced that after 12 years, I’ll be leaving the Southbank Centre to build WOW into a wider global movement. Over eight years we’ve developed these festivals, which speak with candour about every aspect of women’s lives in 30 places, over five continents. It’s proved a hugely compelling project for me to devote more time to.

This month’s celebrations of women’s achievements in getting voting rights was gratifying but WOW aims to celebrate girls and women all year round. Celebration creates optimism, and optimism gives us the stamina to face up to the tough stuff and keep going. You have to build fun into life wherever possible… For me, it’s essential. 

WOW Women of the World festival will be held at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, from 7-11 March

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist