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25 October 2012

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

Samira Shackle reports from Pakistan.

By Samira Shackle

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.

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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.