On Malala Yousufzai and educating girls

Published: October 11, 2012

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. She holds a PhD in Economics from Yale University

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 persecution 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.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (8)

  • A.Raja Rao
    Oct 12, 2012 - 12:01AM

    Pakistan has progressed beyond the point of no return. People like you living happily in USA can only write such articles and hope for the best.

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  • Spud
    Oct 12, 2012 - 5:51AM

    @A.Raja Rao: I agree with your comment. Ms. Afzal believes that Pakistan is not controlled by Taliban forgetting that a large part is. She says that whole Pakistan is united for Malala which is incorrect. Taliban whom Imran Khan calls as ideologues live in an area where hundreds of army intelligence service personnel are present. They who have sophisticated eves-dropping electronic devices have not been able to find one Taliban person because they are in cahoots with these Islamists and want to use them in India. Ms. Afzal who lives in the US seems to have a romantic view of Islam and believe it to be a religion which gives immense freedom to women which unfortunately not the case. If she lived in Swat she may have to cover her head in order to not draw the wrath of Taliban.

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  • dpd
    Oct 12, 2012 - 2:25PM

    Every household in Pakistan has WOMEN. Let them come out every friday whilst the men are in the mosque, praying. All the women should be on the road peacfully protesting every friday for one hour. This protest must be advertised as a PEACE march which their male counterparts are not willing to take part in. The only marches that one reads about is either about religion or an anti USA march. It is only the women who can change the thinking of MEN.

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  • Raza
    Oct 12, 2012 - 4:19PM

    Education must be promoted in Pakistan, the major reason is lack of education and inflation, however working on education may help the country … we should support Malala and pray for her quick recovery.

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  • Oct 12, 2012 - 7:35PM

    I think its an excellent eye opening article.Ms.Afzal raised some really important points in last two para.Those who critisized Ms.Afzal please dont behave like taliban.Investment in girls education is not enough,pakistani men should appreciate women participation in society,either she is in pakistan or abroad.

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  • Cheryl
    Oct 13, 2012 - 9:40AM

    I will be happy to bring Malala to Australia to be educated without any risk
    Does the Taliban know this s the 21st century and that women are educated in fact, many are captains of industry.
    This is about the most hideous thing I’ve ever heard of – please tell us how we can help her and her family – I understand her father is an educational activist

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  • Mystic
    Oct 13, 2012 - 7:54PM

    Ummmmm…. what are you doing in the USA Madiha? Please come educate our women.

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  • Salim
    Oct 13, 2012 - 9:54PM

    Education must be right education. Education should be about Islam and the role women should play in home and the community. All this education about Economics, Biology, and Accountancy, Businesss, and so on is wrong. this is not right. I see this education as not being with the teachings in Koran and Hadiths. All this so called modern education is about money, we need to to propagate and maintain the teachings of the great one.

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