How Malala Yousafzai May Affect Pakistan’s Violent Culture Wars

The Taliban has declared that the education of girls is only a small part of its attack on Malala. It is the secularist movement she represents that it wants destroyed — and that is a more volatile debate in a deeply sectarian country

  • Share
  • Read Later
Shakil Adil / AP

A supporter of Pakistani political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement, center, reacts while she and other women chant prayers in support of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai

A larger battlefield in Pakistan looms for the group that claims responsibility for shooting Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old advocate of education for girls. Even as the young woman lay in critical condition, with “a 70% chance of survival” according to one local newspaper, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) vowed it would attack her again if she survives, according to a statement from their spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan. Indeed, for the TTP, the stakes are broader than schooling for girls and women. “If anyone thinks that Malala is targeted because of education,” said a TTP statement, “that’s absolutely wrong and propaganda by the media. Malala is targeted because of her pioneer role in preaching secularism and so-called enlightened moderation. And whosoever will commit so in the future too will be targeted again by TTP.”

The Taliban may have been making a political play with the shooting. After all, Pakistanis, in the recent past, have reacted ambivalently to violence against representatives of “secularism and so-called enlightened moderation.” Last year, the then governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by one of his own security guards — Mumtaz Qadri — who was incensed over his boss’ support of a Christian woman who was facing charges of blasphemy, a legal charge in the eyes of Pakistani law. The assassination left Pakistan divided between “liberals” thoroughly opposed to the murder and crowds — including lawyers — who thronged the streets to throw rose petals on the vehicle that transported Qadri to court.

(MORE: Malala Yousafzai: The Latest Victim in the War on Children in Pakistan)

Later that same year, Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti — himself a Christian — was assassinated in Islamabad when Taliban gunmen opened fire on his car. The murderers left the scene with pamphlets that labeled the minister a “Christian infidel.” Bhatti — like Taseer — had spoken out against the blasphemy laws.

In July, Farida Afridi, 25, the founder of a nonprofit that educated Pakistani women about their legal rights, was gunned down in broad daylight in Peshawar, a Taliban stronghold. She was shot in the head, reportedly, after a motorbike with two men drove up behind her, opened fire and sped away. No one has claimed responsibility for her death. “How do you hold assassins accountable when your code of ethics is directly in conflict?” asks Hira Nabi, a Lahore artist, exasperated by the country’s ideological divide. “How do you combat a way of existence that doesn’t recognize your right to live?”

But if the TTP was hoping for more populist division in Pakistan with the attack on a child, they appear to have miscalculated. Almost all Pakistanis — even those who have continued to support the deeply sectarian blasphemy laws — were appalled. Indeed, the widespread political sympathy for Malala has given the so-called liberals public space to speak out — even though such opposition to the Taliban and defending the rights of minorities almost guarantees the critic being added to a Taliban hit list. The attack, says Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi, a youth activist, “is a wake-up call for those who patronize with and are apologetic toward the Taliban. [The incident] unveils how the society and the state are unable to protect its peace-loving daughters and how the threat from violent radicalism is still pretty much alive [in Pakistan].”

(PHOTOS: The Taliban’s War in Pakistan)

Sana Saleem, another activist and blogger, used the incident to further castigate the Taliban — and a government unsure of how to proceed in Pakistan’s violent culture wars. “While courageous women continue to fight for their rights, [the Taliban] will do everything possible to silence them. This shouldn’t be ignored; the state should do everything possible to protect human-rights advocates around the country.”

It helps the secularist cause that Malala had a winning personality and the epitome of childish innocence. “I had dinner with Malala and her family and found her to be a very awe-inspiring little girl,” says Todd Shea, who works for an NGO that established a hospital in Pakistan after last year’s devastating floods. “She spoke perfect English and displayed an elegance, intelligence and grace beyond her years. This incident has really broken my heart but I hope it finally galvanizes Pakistan as a nation to end the extremism that leads to the most depraved crimes against humanity, such as shooting innocent schoolgirls simply because they choose to demand the most basic rights most people take for granted.”

Perhaps so. But while most Pakistanis are horrified that the Taliban attacked a young girl, some are wondering whether it is enough to change deep-seated sentiments about the role religion must play in governing the country. At a gathering to protest the attack on Malala, Nabi the artist says “sentiments and loyalties were difficult to gauge.” Nabi recalls, “I tried to hand a candle to one policeman, asking him to join us. He replied that he was part of the protest but would not take the candle.”

MORE: The Taliban Halts Polio Vaccines — and Pakistan’s Kids Will Pay