Why Malala matters: the Taliban’s war on women continues

Malala Yousafzai on her way to attend her first day at school after she was shot by the Taliban last year. EPA

One Pakistani teenage girl is back where she belongs: in school. But Malala Yousafzai, who was shot last year for campaigning for female education by the Taliban, is not your average school girl.

Already in her short life she has been courageous against all odds. And her journey has come to symbolise the plight of women seeking education in some of the most dangerous regions in the world.

But with Malala set to get the education she struggled to obtain in her homeland, it’s important to also look at how the future may be looking for other women back home in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A dangerous education

Malala came to worldwide attention late last year when she was attacked by a Taliban gunman who, after identifying her, shot her at close range. She was critically wounded but eventually flown to Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital for specialist treatment for skull reconstruction.

The Taliban had orchestrated the attack after threatening her and her father Ziauddin to stop their support for the Western agenda of “secular” education for girls.

After nearly five months of treatment in the UK in which she has had a titanium plate and cochlear implant fitted, Malala was discharged from the hospital in February this year. And last week started at the Edgbaston High School for girls in Birmingham as a Year 9 student.

The Taliban’s record

Malala’s story represents resistance, particularly against the pernicious and misogynistic demands of Islamist extremism and militarisation.

That a teenage school girl wanting an education can appear as a “threat” to a militant group says plenty. The Taliban forces operating in the Swat Valley have relentlessly attacked education which they perceive as a Western secular influence that is against Islamic Shariah laws.

Malala recovering in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham after being shot by the Taliban. EPA/University Hospitals Birmingham

According to one estimate, out of 1,576 schools in Swat, the Taliban destroyed 401 of them between 2001 and 2009. 70% of the destroyed schools were girls’ schools.

The militancy in the North West Khyber area of Pakistan has deprived 600,000 children from receiving education, with girls suffering the most. The literacy gap between girls and boys in appallingly high. Acid attacks, sexual abuse and early marriages of girls has compounded in the years since the militancy in the region.

Not only do girls like Malala face these challenges from the Taliban, but the Pakistani government’s [record on education](http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2013/0318/Pakistan-s-education-crisis-What-ever-happened-to-Malala-s-friends](http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-South-Central/2013/0318/Pakistan-s-education-crisis-What-ever-happened-to-Malala-s-friends) is also a matter of great concern.

Government spending on education is less than 3% of GDP – among the lowest in the world. This is in contrast to the high budget allocation for army and defence which has been criticised by Pakistan’s public intellectuals.

Negotiating with terrorists

The attack on Malala should at least make us understand that any compromise or peace deal with the Taliban, which is being considered a policy option in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, will seriously undermine women’s rights in the region.

In Afghanistan, president Hamid Karzai will soon hold talks with the Taliban in Qatar. While Pakistan has always tried to broker deals with the Taliban.

Foreign secretary Jalil Abbas Jilani just recently stated that Pakistan “will accommodate any entity that will be helpful in making the [peace] process successful.”

And in the past, under the “peace for Shariah” deal between the Government and one of the militant groups in the region, Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), the Taliban was expected to surrender its arms in exchange for the legal enforcement of Shariah laws (although this deal eventually collapsed when both sides refused to cease attacks).

Any peace talks then must be able to guarantee women’s rights and freedoms, or the Taliban’s version of Shariah will only entrench the “war on women” further.

Pakistan’s conscience

This situation is likely only to become more difficult after foreign troops withdraw in 2014.

Many Afghani (and Pakistani) women from the conflict areas have expressed their concerns about what will happen and how any negotiations with the Taliban will reverse the trend of women’s increasing political participation, as well as access to education, jobs and public spaces.

Malala Yousafzai is the conscience of the women in the conflict areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Her story should serve as a reminder that ideological wars have a deeply misogynistic rhetoric.

They are not only about control of territory and political power but also about control over women’s bodies and denying them freedom and rights.

Peace talks which do not foreground women’s issues and which do not have women representatives should be rejected. They have no place in a modern society, the premise of which should be gender justice and equality for all women and minorities.