Almot four years ago, when Malala Yousafzai first came to public attention as an 11-year-old whose poignant diary entries, contributed to BBC Urdu, offered an invaluable insight into conditions in Pakistan’s Swat region, the schoolgirl aspired to a career in medicine. At some point she changed her mind. She decided she wanted to be a politician instead.
“This country badly needs sincere leadership,” she told Newsweek correspondent Sami Yousafzai last year. How very true. Any number of Pakistani leaders have claimed to share the public revulsion occasioned by the recent attempt to assassinate Malala. Far too many of them have not, however, been able to bring themselves to blame the Taliban for this act of extraordinary barbarity – notwithstanding the fact that Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) lost little time in proudly taking responsibility for trying to kill a 14-year-old girl.
A spokesman for that organisation declared that the TTP was obliged to eliminate anyone who “leads a campaign against Islam and Shariah” and that Malala’s primary crime was her “pioneer role in preaching secularism and so-called enlightened moderation”. The Taliban also took umbrage at her idealisation of US President Barack Obama.
Malala has not, by any stretch of the imagination, campaigned against Islam. Her activism has chiefly focused on the right of all children — especially girls — to an education. Yes, everyone knows educated women are the Taliban’s bete noire. Everyone also ought to know this moronic mindset militates against all facets of common sense. It can appeal only to those who are keen to perpetuate and reinforce Pakistan’s dark ages.
These date back to the Zia-ul-Haq regime’s campaign to enshroud and confine Pakistani women, when the slogan was “chaddar aur chardiwari” (body-covering and four walls). It was resisted, of course, yet its consequences were alarming. I recall returning to Lahore in 1983 after three years abroad, and being gobsmacked by the fact that hardly any women were to be seen on the streets. (Karachi, in contrast, served as a useful reminder that humanity indeed consisted of two sexes.)
Even Zia wasn’t quite stupid enough to seek to outlaw education for girls, although many of the Mujahideen he sponsored in Afghanistan, on behalf of the United States, took particular pride in targeting co-educational schools and teachers who taught female students. When the Taleban took over in that country, they immediately took aim at women’s already meagre rights.
“Sometimes I imagine I’m going along and the Taliban stop me,” Malala Yousafzai has been quoted as saying on a television talk show last year. “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 they kill me, I’ll first say to them what you’re doing is wrong”.
In her native Swat, Malala’s particular beef against the Taliban who held sway in the region for a couple of years was their attacks on girls schools. One of her diary entries noted that her school had advised girls against wearing their uniforms, for fear of attracting the Taliban’s attention. When the girls turned up in colourful attire, they were told that too might not go down well with the self-anointed purveyors of a primitive, misogynist morality. This was the sort of fascism in the face of which Malala precociously took a stand. She realised the price it could entail. “Sometimes I imagine I’m going along and the Taliban stop me,” she has been quoted as saying on a television talk show last year. “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 they kill me, I’ll first say to them what you’re doing is wrong”.
The obvious silver lining in the context of last week’s events is that Malala survived the Taliban attack — carried out, tellingly, while she was returning home from school in Mingora — and it remains possible to hope she will make a full recovery — she is being cared for doctors at a hospital in Birmingham. Another glimmer of hope has resided in the hardly unreasonable expectation that such a dastardly act, followed by the TTP’s outrageous threat to target the courageous child again, would turn public opinion against the Taliban more decisively than before. That has occurred to a certain extent, with condemnation of the attack coming even from organisations previously uncritical or subtly supportive of the TTP.
It hasn’t uniformly been unequivocal, but is welcome nonetheless. At the same time there have been efforts to cloud the issue. Perhaps inevitably, the relentless American drone attacks in the Waziristan region have been drawn into the discourse. Indignation over the missile strikes has never been a valid excuse for a softened stance on domestic terrorists. There are plenty of grounds for opposing both, while recognising that the latter pose a considerably broader and longer-term threat.
And, since last week, it is possible at least to understand the emotional charge behind an outburst by one of Malala’s former teachers, whom Sami Yousafzai quotes as saying: “I was a supporter of … Imran Khan. Now I’m challenging Imran Khan: your March against the drone attacks was wrong! Let the US eliminate the Taliban! They are a burden to our civilisation and all humanity!”
It’s not as straightforward as that, unfortunately. Only Pakistanis can eliminate the Taliban, their obscurantist allies and their primitive mentality. By trying to murder a child who symbolises a brighter tomorrow, the forces of darkness have struck a more-or-less nationwide chord. Whether it proves to be a watershed moment remains to be seen, but if such a shock to the national psyche fails to kickstart a vigorous fight-back — through ideas, as Malala has been doing, not just weapons — then it’s hard to say what will. Pakistan’s future is on life-support. If those who would murder it are to be stopped, the time is now.
Mahir Ali is a journalist based in Sydney.