The Express Tribune

On Malala Yousufzai and Educating Girls

Today, Pakistan is in an uproar over the targeted shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai by the Taliban. The Taliban, quick to claim responsibility for the attack, called her advocacy for the education of children, and particularly that of girls, in Swat an “obscenity”, warning the rest of Pakistan to not follow in her footsteps: “let this be a lesson”. With this tragic incident, Pakistan is at a crossroads in the war for its future. The two paths in front of the country are clear. It can tumble down the route of Afghanistan or take the long and uphill route to becoming a relatively peaceful and prosperous country, like India.

Facing the Taliban takeover of Swat in 2009, 11-year-old Malala took on her shoulders the responsibility of a country and did what the Pakistani government did not have the courage to do — she stood up for her basic human rights. Today, as she fights for her life on a hospital bed in Peshawar, pictures of her heartbreakingly innocent face cover the pages of newspapers and the screens of social and news media across Pakistan, finally uniting a country against its real enemy: the Taliban. The Pakistani government, military and opposition parties are, in a rare show of unity, unequivocally denouncing the attack, for once on the same page as the civil society, which has also forcefully and bravely stepped out into the streets.

This public outrage offers a glimmer of hope. Pakistan has taken a tiny step on the difficult path towards reclaiming its identity as a moderate country. In the short term, the government needs to step up and seize the opportunity in front of it and finally take decisive action against the Taliban. Hunt down Malala’s attackers and the perpetrators of countless previous atrocities, try them quickly and if they are convicted, ensure they never see the light of day again. It will take a combined effort by the government, the judiciary, the police and the military, all of whom will have to get past their fractious history — a very tall order by any stretch. But there is nothing more important — the very existence of Pakistan and the basic human rights of its citizens are at stake. However, this is a short-term fix.

The long-term solution to rooting out radicalisation and militancy lies in the very thing which so threatens the Taliban: girls’ education. While a great deal of empirical evidence from around the world demonstrates that investments in female education give huge dividends in terms of economic, educational and health advancements, my recent research establishes that the education of girls also makes them less supportive of terrorism and militancy. Specifically, I used data from a recent, large-scale public opinion survey in Pakistan to show that while uneducated women exhibit higher support for militancy relative to uneducated men, educated women show much lower support for militancy relative to educated men.

Imagine a society where women are unable to deliver their babies in hospitals because the only on-call doctor is male, or a society where any girl emerging from the house to study or any women going to work is under threat. This was Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The good news is that Pakistan is not there — yet. That it took an attempted murder of a courageous girl and the brazenness of the Taliban’s public proclamations threatening her life again, to shake us out of our complacency is appalling. That the assassinations of Governor Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti by extremists last year did not elicit such a response is depressing.

Though there should never have been any doubt, we now know for sure that there is no room for negotiations with the Taliban. This attack was not about drones and it was not about Islam. This is about a struggle for power and control by the Taliban and an effort to remove any traces of productive participation by women in society. Just as the Taliban scare us with terror, we must scare them by making them unable to operate. The threat of prosecution may not serve as a deterrent to the crazed suicide bomber variety of militants, but it will deter many elements within the Taliban and it will importantly deter future militant recruits. We must terrorise them by investing more than ever before in educating girls.

The Taliban know that they lie on the fringes of society, given that even the militant Jamaatud Dawa publicly opposed the attack on Malala. This tragedy reeks of their desperation, not their strength. Let this event be a lesson to the Taliban and be their end.