Women, guns and education – And Malala Yousafzai

“The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. This is why they killed 14 innocent students in the recent attack in Quetta,” said Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in her special speech to the United Nations Youth Assembly on 12 July – her birthday, declared as Malala Day.

“And that is why they kill female teachers. That is why they are blasting schools every day, because they were and they are afraid of change and equality.”

Yousafzai’s remarks reflect a history of stopping women’s education in some parts of Pakistan, where terrorists use guns and bomb blasts at schools and universities to achieve this end.

Malala Yousafzai, now 16 years old, was shot in the head by Taliban extremists in Swat valley last October. The Taliban had banned girls’ education but Malala resisted and spoke up for the right of girls. She won the battle for life at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham in the UK.

In Pakistan, Taliban extremism has emerged as the most challenging threat to the education of girls, as the Taliban does not have anything other than ‘death’ to convey its message, which is: “Women do not have the right to be a student or to become a teacher.”

“When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book,” Ban Ki Moon, secretary general of the United Nations, said during the Youth Assembly held on 12 July in New York, where Yousafzai addressed nearly 1,000 delegates from across the globe.

Attacks on women students

In many parts of Pakistan, especially areas bordering Afghanistan, women risk their lives simply by going to university.

The 15 June incident Malala referred to in her speech occurred in Quetta city, a few hours’ drive from Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, which is a stronghold of the Taliban on both sides of the border.

Fourteen female students were killed and 20 seriously injured in a bomb attack on a university bus inside the campus of Sardar Bahadur Khan (SBK) Women University. It is a bitter irony that one of those killed, Zara Ahmed, was a student of Islamic studies.

All-female higher education institutions were established to nurture education for women in areas where mixed gatherings of male and female students are considered ‘un-Islamic'.

So why was SBK Women University attacked by the Taliban?

“The attack on female students studying in a female-only campus of a university shows that terrorists simply want to ban education for girls, whether they study in co-ed or in female-only campuses,” Ruksana Jabeen, vice-chancellor of SBK Women University, told University World News.

Jabeen added” “They cannot defeat us.” This is exactly what Malala told the United Nations: “They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed.”

The 2009 Taliban attack on the female campus of Islamabad’s International Islamic University substantiates Jabeen’s views. Terrorists killed six female students and injured 29 in two bomb blasts at the female-only campus where students were attending classes – not to learn music or dance, but to study Islamic law.

In June last year Taliban-linked terrorists attacked a co-ed university bus in Quetta city, killing five students and wounding another 72.

The vice-chancellor of Balochistan University of Engineering and Technology, Mukhtar Ahmad, told University World News that the “spread of ideological war inside university campuses, and targeting female students and teachers, is a serious matter that needs immediate attention from university leaders and government”.

The killing of female teachers in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan has been rising since 2009, when the Taliban told women to stop delivering education and stay inside their homes. Several female teachers have been killed in separate incidents since then.

Fatima, a government school teacher in Bajour Agency – a tribal zone near the Pakistan-Afghan border – told University World News: “They are blowing up girls’ schools, killing female students and female teachers and our government is watching all this like a silent spectator.”

Earlier this year, militants in the Swabi district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province stopped a school van transporting female teachers home and killed all five of them. A month after that Shahnaz, a schoolteacher, was killed in Khyber Agency by the Pakistani Taliban in a Malala-style targeted assassination.

Both the incidents were condemned internationally. Ban-Ki-Moon said: “Attacks on women teachers are particularly heinous because they disproportionately affect the girl students for whom they serve as role models.”

Fatima said militants think that promoting education also promotes a Western liberal agenda; they do not know what is written in the books.

Gender inequity

According to UNESCO’s Gender Parity Index, there are an estimated 82 girls for every 100 boys at primary schools in Pakistan. The good news is that the proportion of girls in school has been rising – there were 52 girls for every 100 boys in 1990, and 33 for every 100 boys in 1970. But data on gender parity in Taliban-afflicted areas of the country are not available.

A 2008 study funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency put the adult literacy rate in Pakistan at 52%, with 35% of women and 65% of men literate.

Globally, women now outnumber men in higher education – there are 108 women studying at this level for every 100 men. This trend is visible in Pakistani universities in urban areas but not in rural areas, where several stereotypes hinder women’s access, including that girls older than 10 should not go to school – which the Taliban uses in its anti-education campaign.

A day before Malala Yousafzai’s speech, former British premier and now UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown criticised the same orthodox doctrine: “There will be no compromise with religious extremists who say girls should not go to school or stop going to school at 10.”

Amidst the Barricades: Pakistani women as managers in higher education, a study by Bushra Ghaus of Rawalpindi’s Fatima Jinnah Women University, finds that Pakistan has not only to control the Taliban phenomenon but also needs fundamental changes in the overall societal approach towards women’s education.

While the Taliban tries to push society back into the dark ages, it is time for Pakistanis and the government to make the education of girls a top priority, to ensure a better future for coming generations. It is time to fight guns and bullets with books and pens.

As Malala told the United Nations: “I am focusing on women's rights and girls' education because they are suffering the most…Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”