INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS: by Siobhan ReevesNews Weekly
Teenage girl shot by Taliban a role model for Muslim youth
, August 3, 2013
Nine months after being shot in the head by the Taliban for advocating the right of education for girls, Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai (born 1997) addressed youth delegates at the United Nations on July 12.
She has inspired many fellow-Muslims, and others around the world, to be fearless in the face of terrorism, despite her almost being killed at such a young age.
When she was only 11, Yousafzai began writing for a BBC blog (under a pseudonym) about life as a young schoolgirl in the Swat Valley, in Pakistan’s northwest, which was then under the control the Taliban.
A key theme of her writings was the importance of education, particularly for girls, as the militant Taliban was destroying many schools in the area. In her passion for education she was inspired by her father, himself an education activist who ran a number of schools.
In 2009, after the Pakistani military apparently removed the Taliban from Swat Valley, Yousafzai became increasingly outspoken and more widely known outside Pakistan. A New York Times documentary was filmed about her in 2010. She was awarded Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize in 2011 and was also a runner-up for the International Children’s Peace Prize later that year. By this time the Taliban had long known her identity and publicly threatened to silence her.
On October 9, 2012, Yousafzai was shot while returning home on a makeshift school bus. Extraordinarily, she survived, eventually being flown to the United Kingdom, where she underwent intensive rehabilitation at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
After her shooting, there were numerous prayer vigils and protests in cities across Pakistan. Though smaller in number than other protests, such as those against the anti-Islam American-made video just a month before the shooting, these peaceful protesters were in much greater danger, the Taliban having immediately reiterated its intention to kill Yousafzai if she survived.
The first national leader to visit her in hospital before her removal to the UK was Pakistan’s top military official, Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, arguably the most powerful man in Pakistan. He declared that “Islam guarantees each individual — male or female — equal and inalienable rights to life, property and human dignity.... We refuse to bow before terror”.
His words were reinforced when 50 Muslim clerics in Pakistan issued a fatwa against her foiled assassins.
In the days after the shooting, the Taliban, in an uncharacteristic gesture, issued in Pakistan’s tribal areas a three-page justification for its attempted assassination. It gave religious reasons for its attack, accusing Yousafzai of being “a spy for the West”.
After Yousafzai’s UN address, a Taliban commander issued a clumsily-worded public letter, in which he expressed his wish that the attack had not happened, but accused her of a smear campaign of which Allah would be the ultimate judge.
The attack has ostracised many of the Taliban’s own supporters within Pakistan.
Yousafzai, now 16, opened her UN address on July 12 with the words, “In the name of God… for whom we are all equal”. Speaking of her renewed determination since the shooting, she emphasised: “I speak not for myself, but so that those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.” She reiterated her vision of “the right of education for every child”.
She also spoke of the importance of forgiveness for terrorists: “This is the compassion I have learned from Mohammed, the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This the legacy of change I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learned from Gandhi, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa.”
Turning the words of the extremists against them, she concluded: “So let us wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism. Let us pick up our books and our pens — they are the most powerful weapons.”
Malala is a powerful symbol of the disconnect between many young Muslins and the militant Islamists. She and others are keen to embrace education, democracy and peace.
In Pakistan today, 56 per cent of the population are under 25 years of age. While there remains a real concern about disaffected young adults joining the Taliban and al-Qaeda, there is also an upsurge of hope that this young generation, exposed to the West from an early age and having had access to more education than previous generations, may seek how best to merge the ideals of the West with the tenets of moderate Islam.
In the eyes of many people around the world, Malala will be an important leader for the future.
Siobhan Reeves is completing a masters degree in international relations at the University of Melbourne.