Earlier this month, the Pakistani Taliban opened fire on a school bus. Two girls were shot. At first, it seemed a familiar story. The Taliban, after all, has bombed hundreds of schools, especially those for girls.
But here’s what’s new: Mass protests ensued against the Taliban, and in favor of women. That’s startling and refreshing in Pakistan.
This past week, thousands of demonstrators thronged to the streets to protest the Taliban’s brutality towards women. They’re rallying around one person, 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai. Malala was one of the girls who was shot on that school bus. She was not an accidental target. The Taliban directly sought her out and shot her in the head. They wanted to kill not only Malala, but what she stood for. Here’s why:
Malala exposed the lie of Islamic extremists – and they were willing to kill her for it.
But she survived, and so has her argument. Her courage in taking on the Taliban has inspired moderate Pakistanis.
We’ve been waiting for this kind of moment for a while. What will it take for moderate Pakistanis to unite against extremism? For years now, fundamentalist groups have tried to turn Pakistan into a theocracy. They’ve scared girls into forgoing school, they’ve repressed women, they’ve pushed for draconian interpretations of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. But where was the pushback? Just last year, when a state governor, Salman Taseer, spoke out against the misuse of the blasphemy law, he was gunned down. Outside the court, his killer was greeted with rose petals. Where was the public outcry?
Perhaps the last time we saw sustained public anger against the Taliban was three years ago, when a video of a woman being flogged circulated on the internet and on Pakistani TV. That moment led to mass support for military action against the Taliban.
So perhaps the tide is turning once again. Pakistanis often blame the West for their problems, protesting against America, against drone strikes, or even against YouTube. But the real enemy lies within. And it took a 14-year-old girl to bring that to people’s attention.
Pakistan’s youth literacy rate is only 71 percent; take South Asia as a whole and that number rises to 80 percent; it rises to 90 percent when you take the whole world into account. Girls fare especially badly in Pakistan. There are only 79 Pakistani schoolgirls for every 100 schoolboys. In South Asia that number is 95, and in the whole world it’s 97.
But you don’t need a World Bank database to spot these trends. Just ask any schoolgirl in Pakistan.
Women are often seen as the stealth reformers of Islam. As they press for their rights, it will force a more liberal and flexible interpretation of the religion. And while politicians have been cowardly and hesitant, a 14-year-old girl has led the charge. Here’s wishing her a complete recovery, so she can get back in the fight for her country and her religion.