By Zack Kleinbart

It’s hard to believe that Pakistan ever took the enormously progressive step of electing a woman, Benazir Bhutto, as its Prime Minister. When she was elected in 1988, it was the first time anywhere in the Muslim world that a woman was allowed to—and even elected to—lead the citizens of a nation. Now, 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.[1] 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. 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 equal footing with men, the Taliban has taken it upon themselves to physically destroy over two hundred schools for girls.[2]

Eleven-year-old Malala Yousafzai finally decided that enough was enough and that 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.[3] She wanted to be a doctor, but the violent reign of the Taliban prevented her from pursuing her dreams.[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6]

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.” [7] 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.[8] Now this young girl, not even fifteen years of age, is struggling for her life in a medical facility in the United Kingdom.

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 the murder of a young girl? Their concern was not that one girl was raising her voice so that others could hear her message. Instead, their concern was that others, men and women alike, did hear Malala. She showed the Taliban that she was not afraid of them, and she 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, but even the tiny ripples of dissent that are flowing throughout Pakistan have the potential to become swells. The Taliban is growing scared, and the people are growing brave. Times will hopefully keep changing in Pakistan, and it is time for the Pakistani people to help make that happen. 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 highlights how powerful a unified, determined resistance movement can be. Malala fought alone against the tidal wave of Taliban oppression, but her spirit could start a tidal wave, one that 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.

 

Zack Kleinbart is a senior studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.  He hopes to become a constitutional and public advocacy lawyer.

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