It’s hard to believe that less than twenty years ago Pakistan took the enormously progressive step of electing a woman, Benazir Bhutto, as its Prime Minister. For the first time in Pakistan- or anywhere in the Muslim world, for that matter- a woman was allowed to, even elected to, lead the citizens of a nation.
Now it seems that in parts of Pakistan, a girl is not even permitted to pursue an education. Since the United States invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban has shifted much of its operations to Pakistan’s Swat Valley. From 2007 until 2009, the terrorist organization held firm and oppressive control over the entire region. Despite being dislodged by the Pakistani army three years ago, the Taliban has maintained a presence in the Swat Valley, which still suffers from a campaign of terror designed to impose a perverted dogma upon its residents. One facet of that ideology is the establishment of a paternalistic society in which women are subservient to men and to the society which men so completely dominate. A primary tool in the Taliban’s arsenal is an edict- which is ruthlessly enforced through violence- which forbids women from pursuing an education. In their efforts to ensure that women never stand on an equal footing with men, the Taliban has taken it upon themselves to physically destroy over two hundred schools for girls.
One young woman strove to fight by the oncoming tide of sexism and violence. As an eleven-year-old girl, Malala Yousafzai decided that enough was enough; the Taliban could not succeed in their quest to destroy the concept of an educated and independent woman. In 2009, Malala began blogging for the British Broadcasting Corporation, mainly about the daily struggles she faced in light of the Taliban presence. She wanted to be a doctor, but the violent reign of the Taliban prevented her from pursuing her dreams. So she became the next best thing: Pakistan’s littlest, and perhaps most influential, political advocate. Her words, which demanded education and other basic human rights for women in Pakistan, resonated so strongly throughout the country that she won the nation’s first National Peace Prize. Her message is espoused in this short snippet of an interview with CNN:
“I have the right of education. I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to go to market. I have the right to speak up.”
This message did not resonate well with the Taliban leadership. “Any female that, by any means, plays a role in the war against the mujahedeen,” spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan declared, “should be killed.”  On October 8 of this year, Taliban gunmen stopped the van that was taking Malala and her classmates home from school. They entered the van, asked for her specifically, and then shot her in the head and neck. Now this young girl, not even fifteen years of age, is struggling for her life in a medical facility in the United Kingdom.
All of our prayers, of course, go out to Malala and her struggle for her life. I am sure she would be so grateful to know of all of the support she is getting. But having read her story, I am positive that Malala would want us to learn from her ordeal, just as she wants everyone to learn as a means of improving the world.
So what can we learn from Malala? First and foremost, she has shown us that the Taliban- and we can extrapolate to other extremist groups- is not an unstoppable force; they can be crippled by fear. What else but fear could cause a group, no matter how evil, to attempt to murder a young girl? Their concern was not that one girl was raising her voice so that others could hear her message; their concern was that others, men and women alike, truly did hear Malala’s egalitarian message. She showed the Taliban that she was not afraid of them, and inspired others to express those same views. For a group whose power relies upon the fear of the populace, this trend towards bravery posed an existential threat. The tables are just barely beginning to turn on the Taliban, and even the tiny ripples of dissent that are rippling throughout Pakistan are shifting fear from the people onto the group which has never yet had to confront its own fears. Times are hopefully changing in Pakistan, and it is time for the Pakistani people to capitalize. And Malala has shown them how to do so. She has shown the world that one person- a child at that- can strike fear into the hearts of some of the world’s most vicious terrorists. Malala’s experience should highlight how powerful a unified, determined resistance movement can be. Just how Malala fought against the tidal wave of Taliban oppression, her spirit could start a tidal wave of her own: one which sparks public outcries for equal rights for women.
In a region so defined by fear and terror, Malala Yousafzai has shown that bravery can overcome daunting odds. I just pray that the Pakistani people will take up the mantle and finish the work that Malala has started.