Child with a big dream
The most vehement words of condemnation will not suffice to express horror and revulsion at the shooting of Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai by the Taliban. The 14-year-old was shot at close range in the head as she sat in a parked school bus with other students in Pakistan’s Swat valley. By some miracle, she survived. Doctors later managed to remove the bullet in her neck near the spine, where it had lodged. She has been flown to Britain for long-term specialist care. The prayers of all the peace-loving people of the world go with her for her recovery.
Although very young, Malala Yousafzai dreams big. Since she was 11, she has been campaigning for the right to education, a universal right that the fundamentalist Taliban of Pakistan and Afghanistan has denied girls beyond the primary level. She has paid dearly for her dream and her determination to get her powerful message across even if it meant risking her life.
Malala gained public recognition through an anonymous blog documenting her experience in 2009 when the Pakistani Taliban swept through Swat, a picturesque tourist destination near the Afghanistan border. Her father had a school that defied the Taliban injunction against the education of girls, and she wrote about the longings and fears of an ordinary girl amid a regime of hatred and intolerance. Her blog highlighted Taliban atrocities such as the burning of girls’ schools; it became popular. Shortly afterward, the Pakistani army launched an operation against the Taliban, in which some 1.2 million residents of Swat were uprooted. When things normalized, Malala became the subject of media documentaries. “She symbolizes the brave girls of Swat,” said filmmaker Samar Minallah. “She knew her voice was important, so she spoke up for the rights of children. Even adults didn’t have a vision like hers.”
If Malala has had to speak up strongly for the right of education, it is because the Taliban are equally strident and ruthless in denying that right and enforcing its twisted interpretation of Islam. A Taliban spokesman has justified the attack on Malala, calling her an “obscenity.” “She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it,” the spokesman said, adding that if she survived, the Taliban would certainly try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson.”
The Taliban claim to follow a pure kind of Islam, yet their oppression of girls and women has no basis in the Koran. Women in Afghanistan were educated and employed prior to Taliban control. In addition, 70 percent of school teachers, 50 percent of civilian government workers, and 40 percent of doctors in Kabul were women. Within Islam, women are allowed to earn and control their own money. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the 55-member Organization of Islamic Conference (now Organization of Islamic Cooperation) refused to recognize the government. Even the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, a conservative organization, has denounced the Taliban.
Moreover, education and scholarship have historically had a prestigious place in Islam. In the Middle Ages, Arab scholars rediscovered Aristotle and foundational Greek thinkers of European civilization. Their scholarship inspired Europeans such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas and contributed to the rise of universities.
The attack on Malala should highlight the policies and practices that continue to oppress women in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Although the Taliban were ousted in 2002 and women’s rights have been more or less restored, women, according to a statement of the conference of Muslim leaders, are considered secondary to men. Women should not travel without a male chaperone. Women should not mix with men while studying, or working, or in public. Women must wear the Islamic hijab. President Hamid Karzai, who has a mixed record on women’s rights, has basically endorsed the statement, even defending it at a news conference.
The offer of more than $100,000 by local authorities for any information leading to the capture of Malala’s attackers can only go so far. What is needed is for the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan to reject Taliban terrorism. What is needed is to embrace the campaign of Malala Yousafzai, a movement for education and enlightenment. Even the Philippines, which takes pride in women’s literacy but whose push for universal education remains lacking in many areas, can learn valuable lessons from her stirring, startling example.
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