Malala Yousufzai: A Girl and a Country

In 2007 when the Tehrik-e-Taliban forces marched into the town of Swat, the rest of Pakistan watched, aghast and unbelieving. The town was very popular as a tourist destination, its verdant foothills studded with picturesque dwellings: a lush and cool getaway from the sun-baked plains of the rest of the country. Within days signs appeared in the marketplace in Mingora, the largest town in the area, forbidding women to appear in the marketplace. Another edict declared that all schools in the area would be closed.

In the rising terror of those days, no one was more distraught than an 11-year-old girl who felt enraged and baffled at what was happening around her. Born to a devout Muslim family, Malala Yousufzai was stunned when she learned that the all-girls school she attended, where she and all her friends nursed their aspirations of achievement, would be shut down. But while others, including her own school administration, were cowed by the fear mongering treachery of the Taliban at their doorstep, Malala Yousufzai refused to swallow this eviction in silence. In a diary written in Urdu and published by the BBC Urdu website, she kept a chronicle of the secluded days under the Taliban, telling the world how a regime of fear was stealing her dreams of an education. On what she believed would be the last day of school for a while, she wrote:

Today was the last day of our school, we decided to play in the playground a bit longer. I am of the view that the school will one day reopen but while leaving I looked at the building as if I would not come here again.

For the two long years it took for the Pakistan Army to take back the District of Swat, it certainly felt like her premonition had come true.  Schools remained closed through the pleasant Swat summers, when tourists used to throng the hillside–a new desolation imposed on girls by their banishment from any spaces beyond their own courtyards or the homes of close relatives. Then, in 2009, there was hope again. The security operations that the Pakistani military had been carrying out in the area managed to evict Taliban forces. Announcements were made asking many residents who had fled to return. Most importantly, and miraculously, schools were reopened. Malala Yousufzai was one of the first to return.

In the days of isolation and darkness, however, an activist had been born. Seeing how suddenly the intimidation and fear sowed by the Taliban could transform a town she had known and loved, and how glibly all those she had trusted had accepted the prescription that shutting girls up at home was an edict of faith, she knew that this was merely the beginning of the battle. In the fight for who defined Islam, the insistence of a devout Muslim girl on going to school was not simply an act of will but an act of resistance against fear. For those who believed only in the power of weapons, the unarmed ferocity of a girl who would not give up defined courage in a way that a gun never could.

Around her, the bombings and burnings of schools, especially girls’ schools, continued. One week, a girls school in Mardan, the northwest of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, was burned; in the same month, another a school in Charsadda, located in the same province, was burned down while the townspeople watched. In July of 2012, another activist, 25-year-old Farida Afridi–a girl who could well be called an older version of Malala–was gunned down by the Taliban. The Taliban spokesperson said it was because the work she was doing through her tiny NGO to help women in the remotest parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province followed a Western agenda. Like the young Malala, Afridi had received many threats but knew that caving into the intimidation would mean accepting a distorted version of Islam defined by the Taliban–one in which women had no right to exist as independent beings, no voice, no right to an education and no right to a life in the public sphere.

Buses, like the one Malala Yousufzai took to school every day, had also in recent months become targets of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. On August 16 a bus in Gilgit Baltistan, not far from the Swat area, was apprehended by the Taliban. In a gruesome video of the attack released later by the group, one can see terrified passengers cry and cower as armed assailants look through their documentation papers, picking out those who belonged to the minority Shia sect. Nineteen people were then lined up, hands behind their backs, and shot one after another as the survivors watched.

In this climate of carnage, Malala Yousufzai still refused to stay home from school. The weight of a confused country, where too many are beginning to fall for the distortions of the Taliban and where more and more women simply choose to shut up and stay indoors rather than deal with harassment, intimidation and threats undoubtedly sat squarely on her young shoulders. In interviews, she continued to display the same outspoken courage that rang out from the words of her diary. When the bus was stopped on the morning of Tuesday October 9,  the gunmen asked for her by name. When they found her, they shot her in the head.

While the gruesome attack on this brave, unarmed 14-year-old stunned Pakistanis, with many participating in vigils and prayer rallies, it is too soon and too difficult to say whether the episode will catalyze the soul searching that is crucial for the country. Pakistan, like Malala herself, is being revealed as a country in flux, struggling between life and death. Pakistan stands between the moderate Muslim country it aspired to be and the dark, distorted and isolated place envisioned by the TehrIk-e-Taliban, Pakistan. If the Taliban is the voice of violence and fear, Malala Yousufzai is the voice of hopefulness.  Like Malala, Pakistan, too, lies ailing on a hospital bed, its 120 million-strong youth population representing the power that can lead to an awakening, eschew the darkness of isolationism and embrace the world. If the girl and the country awaken, our world will be a markedly better place.

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Photo of Swat Valley, Pakistan, from Wikimedia Commons


Rafia Zakaria is the first Pakistani American woman to serve as a Director for Amnesty International USA. She is a lawyer and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Indiana University. She is currently working on her dissertation entitled "Negotiating Identity: Sharia, multiculturalism and Muslim women." Rafia writes a weekly column for the DAWN newspaper which is the largest and oldest English newspaper in Pakistan. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Arts and Letters Daily, the Nation and the American Prospect. She is the only Pakistani American woman recognized by a joint resolution of the Indiana House and Senate for her work on women's rights.