Promoting Women’s Equality in Pakistan

An assassination attempt on a 14-year-old girl reminds us that we need to promote better education and equality for women in Pakistan.

Gunshots, a muffled cry and a brave young girl slumps onto her seat in a school bus in the dusty frontier town of Mingora, in the picturesque valley of Swat. Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai has had a bullet removed from her spine at Pakistan’s premier military hospital and is now in the UK at a children’s hospital for further treatment. She is still in critical condition.

The violent act that has temporarily silenced Malala’s brave voice in promoting girls’ education took place last week, on October 9, 2012. My family and I have known this brave young girl and her family since her father, Ziauddin, invited us to visit and speak at the two schools he operates in Swat. When the Taliban took over the valley in 2008, they banned all education for girls and shut down or destroyed around two hundred girls’ schools. In the face of this oppression, Ziauddin took his schools underground and Malala, who was eleven at the time, courageously started a blog, reporting on her daily life during the oppression of the Taliban.

The Swat Valley in northern Pakistan has been in the news for a while now. A series of catastrophes has hit this beautiful alpine region and its wonderful, peaceful people in recent years. The Taliban’s takeover in 2008 led not only to the destruction of girls schools, but also to public beheadings of opponents, closure of a burgeoning music and film industry, draconian social restrictions on women, and other crimes against humanity. In 2009, only after national outrage, the Pakistan Army took military action to oust the Taliban, resulting in the largest displacement of people since the Rwandan genocide.

After the removal of the Taliban, Malala’s Urdu blog became a regular feature on BBC World and remained one of the few sources of honest, on-the-ground reporting from the Valley. On her daily blog she described how she and some friends secretly attended school despite the Taliban ban. She also reported on the heavy restraints on women, and how even eleven-year-old girls, like her, would have to wear the restrictive shroud or burqa, and how no woman was allowed out of her home without a close male relative as her escort. In her writing one can see an understanding of life far beyond her years.

Ziauddin and Malala have benefitted from a strong legacy of education started by my wife Zebu’s grandfather, Miangul Jahanzeb, the last Wali (Ruler) of Swat. He pioneered girls’ education in a backward area of the world where it was previously lacking. He built hundreds of schools and vigorously encouraged education for both girls and boys, enabling people like Ziauddin and Malala to acquire knowledge that earlier generations could never have received. This legacy allowed Malala to have a voice in the current crisis, unlike in other tribal areas of Pakistan, where girls have never been given an opportunity to study since education and infrastructure development are not priorities. In 1969, Pakistan took over the government of Swat, ending the Wali’s rule, which started a slow decline in social services and government institutions.

Given our roots in Swat and our efforts to promote girls’ education in the area, my family was ecstatic when Malala was named runner-up for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011 and was awarded Pakistan’s National Peace Prize the same year. Now, we are devastated by this tragedy, especially our daughter, Zahra, who in 2011, while working in our organization, Swat Relief Initiative, became close to Malala and Ziauddin. She visited their schools several times and was a guest of honor at Malala’s graduation ceremony.

After creating Swat Relief Initiative (SRI), Zebu started the Rotary Club in Swat, which helps to coordinate efforts of local philanthropists. In 2010, Ziauddin joined the club, and later that year visited the US. While he was staying with us in Princeton, we expressed our concern for his wellbeing and he said he was ready to die for the right of girls to receive an education. We had always been afraid for Ziauddin, but never thought that his young daughter would be the target of an assassination plot.

We started SRI after the Taliban was ousted in 2009 to help address the massive problems created by the displacement of nearly two million people from the region during fighting between the army and the Taliban. Our non-profit organization has since grown to provide healthcare and education, and to facilitate economic development for destitute women and children. Our work with the refugees showed us that the Taliban was able to take over only because of an ineffective and corrupt government that had no accountability due to the area’s weakened communities.

SRI’s primary approach is to make education, healthcare, and financial resources more available to people by encouraging local community development. This process sets the stage for establishing democracy at the grass-roots level by giving disadvantaged people both the ability to direct their own development and the capacity to hold their government accountable. We hope these efforts will reduce the corruption and inefficiency that gave the Taliban the opening to take over the Swat Valley.

With the Taliban removed from power, life is slowly returning to ‘normal’ with security provided by the heavy presence of the Pakistan Army. Girls are beginning to go back to school, infrastructure is being rebuilt and fear of consequences for normal social activity is diminishing, but there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. All of this could still be derailed by dramatic incidents like that against Malala.

The tragic attack on this fourteen-year-old happened in a remote region of Pakistan but has consequences far greater than many of us realize. This crime is being condemned and decried in the strongest of terms from pulpits of mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples all over the world. This helps, but we need to do more work on the ground to promote gender equality and to give girls and women a voice through education and social services. The global implications of inaction in the face of such horror can only portend a very bleak future for human rights in all its forms and threatens the credibility of well-meaning people everywhere.

Please join us in prayer for Malala’s recovery and for the return of her strong plea for female education, which she has voiced so bravely under circumstances so horrific that many of us cannot even imagine them.

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