The shooting of a young Pakistani blogger and activist, Malala Yousafzai, has made headlines all over the world this week. Heads of states, human rights and media activists have vehemently condemned the brutal attack by the Pakistani Taliban but does it change anything for the countless girls like Malala who are forced to give up their right to free speech?
What happened with Malala certainly does not define the status of women in Pakistan as it is a country with a stark divide. On one side are the posh streets of Karachi and Islamabad where women publicly protest against human rights violations and on the other side is the Swat valley where girls like Malala are targeted for speaking out and demanding their rights.
Malala still remains in a critical condition, three days after she was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban when she was returning from her school. The culture of impunity is so high in Pakistan that even after the authorities have offered a reward of $100,000 , justice may never be served.
Soon after the attack, the Pakistani Taliban took responsibility and issued a statement stating that, "we will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban. We warned her several times to stop speaking against the Taliban and to stop supporting Western non-governmental organisations, and to come to the path of Islam." Life for Malala will never be the same as the Taliban proclaimed that they will continue attacking her until she dies.
Malala was only 11 when she started writing a diary for BBC Urdu where she described living in fear of not being able to continue her education. Still unaware of the impact her writing could have, Malala continued advocating for peace and education. She was doing what men twice her age feared to do- speak against the Taliban. Her progressive ideas and passion for education brought her to the forefront and exposed her to the media, a move that may have cost her her life say media experts in Pakistan.
"Media is partially responsible for the attack"
Dr. Shahid Masood is a prominent Pakistani journalist who is also the executive director of Geo TV. Masood met Malala when she was only 11 in her hometown of Mingora, a small town tucked away in the Swat valley. During that time the offensive attacks by the Taliban made it impossible for the media or government to enter the area, recalls Masood. Only after the 2009 peace agreement between the Pakistani Taliban and the government took place did Masood and his team decide to visit this area where they ended up meeting Malal accidently. “My first impression of her was that she was very vocal and courageous. She stood out in the crowd and I was amazed to hear her ideas on education and peace and we decided to invite her on our TV show,” he recalled.
“I feel terribly sad because I think the media is also partially responsible for this brutal attack,” Masood said. “Malala was all over the Pakistani media talking about education and peace, expressing her opinions but maybe if we wouldn’t have exposed her so much, her attackers wouldn’t have been able to recognise her easily. We failed in providing her the security she needed because where she comes from, girls are only seen in chador but here there was this girl speaking out against the Taliban and conservatism.”
Even though Malala has been advocating girl’s education for over three years , she and her father have received numerous threats in the past. “I am not surprised that they waited for three years before they attacked her. Already people are disgusted at this attack, imagine everybody’s reaction if they did this to her when she was 11,” said Tahira Abdullah, a Pakistani human rights activist who has known Malala’s family for a few years now.
Almost all the Pakistani media outlets have received threats from the Taliban for covering Malala’s story and supporting her. “We have received threats from the Taliban in the past few days to stop broadcasting Malala’s story but we just have to continue with our work,” said Masood.
Malala's strength is her family
Malala’s family is refreshingly different from her neighbours. Her father is her biggest supporter and encouraged her at every step recalls Abdullah.
“They come from a very unassumingly modest background but full of life and vigour. I have seen that there is a lot of encouragement in this pashtun house, which is unusual and uncommon in conservative pashtun societies. There is so much importance given to daughters in this house when you usually see families ignoring their daughters and not encouraging or motivating them,” Abdullah said.
In many other societies, unlike Pakistan, women activists are expected to be in the forefront and people don’t understand activism which is away from the public eye. Many analysts believe that in a country where conservatives and liberals find it difficult to co-exist, stopping advocacy is not a solution, but adopting non-traditional methods is a preferable way to work.
Yasmin Dastur is the vice-president at All Women Pakistan’s Association, and her organisation is working in the Swat valley region to empower young girls like Malala.
“I can’t give names because they may get in danger for the kind of work they are doing but there are many women playing a role in politics and running schools from their homes but they can’t appear in public. Everything has to be low-key to protect these girls,” Dastur said.
Change is inevitable in Pakistan and this attack will probably inspire many other young women to support Malala in her quest for education and peace.