What would drive armed gunmen to open fire on a bus full of schoolgirls, with the express aim of assassinating one talented young teenager? That’s the question on the minds of many people this week, following Tuesday’s attempted assassination of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in northwestern Pakistan. A refugee fleeing Taliban violence and oppression in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, Malala had already won a following for her precocious and courageous blog posts, written when she was really just a child, arguing that young women have a right to an education, and indeed, to a life free from discrimination and fear.
She is also a hero to many Pakistanis. In 2011, the Pakistani government awarded her a national peace prize and 1 million rupees (US$10,500). In 2012, she was a finalist for the International Children’s Peace Prize, awarded by a Dutch organization, in recognition of her courage in defying the Taliban by advocating for girls’ education.
Even with her high profile, Yousafsai’s parents did not worry about her security. Apparently they did not think the Taliban would “stoop so low” as to harm her. Now, they know. A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed credit for the assassination attempt, called Malala and her support for women’s education a “symbol of Western culture” and an “obscenity”. He promised that his organization will try to kill her again if she survives her wounds.
This promise to harm Malala is meant as a signal to all the bright young Pakistani girls who desire an education. And by trying to keep girls ignorant, dependent, and fearful, not only does the Taliban harm women, it cripples society as a whole and distorts the consciousness of many men. And there’s no surer way to sow despair among your enemies than to kill their children, especially a bright, talented, courageous girl who represents a special threat to their extremist political vision. For the Taliban, this is part of a long-term strategy for political consolidation. Or at least it seems to be.
According to at least one journalist of Pakistani origin, it’s a lot simpler than that: she claims that the assassination attempt was driven, not by politics, but by a “pathological hatred of women”. I’m not a psychologist, and so cannot attempt to penetrate the minds of misogynists and would-be child killers. But I do see a ruthless, but not unique, extension of two old political principles: First, get rid of the leaders and you destroy the movement. And second, keep the people ignorant, and they will be more easily intimidated and manipulated.
As in the U.S., the people of Pakistan understand that education is a powerful, shaping force in the life of individuals and the broader society. Just as radical Islamists use madrassas to train new generations of young male extremists, they work hard to stifle the educational aspirations of young girls. In this context, the Taliban leadership hoped that killing Malala would darken young Pakistani girls’ hope for a new and better future.
Political attacks against students, teachers, and schools, especially girls’ schools, are nothing new, as previously discussed in this space. With the Taliban’s attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, however — and her elevation to a national symbol for a “bright future” — we have entered a whole new, high-stakes realm. I hope they have severely underestimated the Pakistani people, who surely must be motivated to rise up and end this threat to their children and the bright future that Malala Yousafzai has come to embody.