Girls determined to fight guns with books

Not even the attempted assassination by the Taliban of 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai has undermined the determination of young girls in that country to acquire an education, says Ashfaq Yusufzai.

Shazia Begum, one of three girls injured in the attack on the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, says the Taliban had sought to silence a very influential schoolgirl.

'Malala is a source of inspiration for all of the students in Swat,' Shazia Begum told Inter Press Service  (IPS) at the Combined Military Hospital in Peshawar where she is being treated. 'She encouraged us to get education when the Taliban banned it.'

Malala, 14, who suffered gunshot injuries to her head in the 9 October attack in Swat, is recovering in the hospital in Rawalpindi to which she was moved. She remains in serious condition. (Since this article was written, Malala has been transferred to a hospital in Birmingham in the UK for further treatment.)

'Her articles on the BBC gave us hope and enhanced our love for education. It was because of her that thousands of girls attended schools despite the Taliban's opposition,' Shazia Begum told IPS.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told IPS that Malala had helped the government bring girls back to school when the Taliban were trying to slam the doors of education on them.

Despite being on the hit list of the Taliban, she never missed going to school, and this encouraged female students in the violence-wracked Swat, Hussain said.

Swat, one of the 25 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, remained under Taliban control from 2007 to 2009. The Taliban destroyed about 500 schools in that period, depriving about 80,000 students of an education. The Taliban were evicted following a military offensive in 2010.

'Every day the Taliban hanged bodies of their opponents from electricity poles after executing them,' lawmaker Bushra Gohar told IPS. 'The residents of Swat kept silent due to reprisals by the Taliban but Malala proved a blessing not only for men but also for women.'

Pakistan Tehreek Insaf chairman Imran Khan, who visited the hospital on 10 October, said Malala was braver than all men. 'When all the people went into hibernation due to Taliban fear, she remained steadfast and served as a beacon of hope for fellow students,' Khan said.

Her outspoken criticism of militants had earned the wrath of the Taliban but she refused security, which speaks of her matchless bravery, he said.

Threats to Malala's life increased manifold when she received the National Peace Award in recognition of her services for education and peace in December 2011. She was also among the nominees for the International Children's Peace Prize. She is the first Pakistani girl nominated for that award.

Malala joined her father Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educationist and social activist, in supporting a peace deal in 2009. But instead of laying down arms, militants began to operate from the adjoining Buner district. Malala and her family were among those displaced in the violence. Malala wrote of her experiences in that period under the pen name Gul Makai.

Hussain has announced a 10 million rupee ($105,000) award for information leading to the arrest of individuals who attacked Malala. He said the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government had offered to bear all expenses for her treatment here or abroad.

'We will trace the terrorist who shot Malala and will bring her attackers to justice. They will not survive for long,' he said. The Taliban militants, he said, had started attacking children, which was a sign of weakness and desperation.

He said the government would provide security to her family because the terrorists could hit them anytime.

School students all over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have been moved by the attempt to kill Malala. A barrage of demonstrations have been condemning the barbarism of the Taliban.

'We are deeply shocked by the attack on Malala who is our sister. We would follow her in struggle against militancy and protection of schools,' Spogmay, a student of University Model School in Peshawar, told IPS. Holding a banner to condemn the incident during a protest demonstration, she said students would stand like a rock to safeguard their schools.

Militants can attack the schools with bombs but they cannot weaken the students' beliefs, she said.

The Taliban have been targeting schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas since 2008. 'Those getting English and modern education in the schools are not Muslims. Girls' education is not allowed in Islam, therefore, the Taliban wouldn't allow these schools,' Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan told reporters.

Some attacks on school buildings have continued. 'The schools are destroyed mostly during the night. They plant explosives which damage the schools,' Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Minister Sardar Hussain Babak told IPS.

Babak said that they will build 100 new schools for every one that the militants destroy. He said the government had allocated $460.4 million for promotion of education over the next two years.

The government is particularly promoting education for girls, he said. 'We are paying more attention to female education as they had suffered at the hands of Taliban militants,' he said.

About 200 schools damaged by the Taliban have been reconstructed in Swat while students from the rest manage in tents.

On 12 October, the schools across the province remained shut  to  show solidarity with Malala and to offer prayers  for  her  early  recovery. - IPS

*Third World Resurgence No. 264/265, August/September 2012, pp 60-61