Girls attending class in Nowshera. The Taliban see schools as symbols of Western decadence. More Photos »
By TAHA SIDDIQUI and DECLAN WALSH
Published: July 11, 2013
GHALANAI, Pakistan — The classroom in Ghalanai, an area nestled amid the mountains of Pakistan’s tribal belt, has the air of a military camp: a solitary tent pitched beside a bombed-out building, ringed by a high wall and protected by an armed gunman.
“We need to assure parents that it’s safe,” said Noor Haider, a local tribal leader who took on school security after Taliban militants bombed the school three years ago.
Extreme measures have become necessary as Taliban militants have pressed their violent campaign against girls’ education in northwestern Pakistan, bombing schools and terrifying pupils and parents.
More than 800 schools in the region have been attacked since 2009, according to government education authorities. But it was a vicious attack last October on an outspoken 15-year-old schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, that moved the issue to global prominence.
A Taliban hit man shot Ms. Yousafzai in the head in an attempt to silence her eloquent advocacy of education rights in Swat, a picturesque mountain valley that had been the scene of fierce fighting between the Taliban and the military.
After a medical evacuation to Britain, where war surgeons repaired her shattered skull, Ms. Yousafzai has made a startling recovery. In March, she resumed her schooling in Britain. And on Friday she is marking her 16th birthday by addressing a youth assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
That speech will be the first unmediated public appearance by a young woman who has become an international symbol of teenage bravery and educational activism. Ms. Yousafzai has won numerous honors and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. News of her progress is assiduously followed across the world.
Back in Pakistan, however, the Taliban war on girls’ education continues unabated.
Ghalanai is the headquarters of Mohmand, a hilly tribal agency along the Afghan border where schools have been the targets of more than 100 attacks. Military check posts dot the hilltops, overlooking largely barren land. A female suicide bomber almost killed the leader of a religious party here this year.
The Pakistani Taliban see schools as symbols of both Western decadence and government authority, but their attacks are also intended to deny the Pakistani military the possibility of establishing temporary bases in the buildings. Typically, they strike in the dead of night, planting explosives that topple buildings and shred desks and blackboards.
The authorities have struggled to respond. At the Government Girls Primary School, Mr. Haider started the tent school with help from the United Nations. Otherwise, the government has done little, he said.
And the Taliban continue to exert pressure on parents and pupils. Night letters posted in the town describe girls’ schooling as a “product of the West” and order pious Muslims to shun the schools.
The siegelike situation has led some brave young women to follow Ms. Yousafzai’s example and defy the Taliban edicts. That was the case in Shabqadar, on the edge of Mohmand, where the Taliban decided to send a violent message in December.
Hira Gul, a 14-year-old pupil, was awakened by an explosion at midnight. The next morning she found a pile of rubble where her school had stood. The attack came as no surprise. “This has become very common in our area,” she said.
Her teacher, however, was profoundly affected. For days after the attack, the teacher, Fazeelat Bibi, visited the destroyed school every morning “to cry my heart out,” she said.
She has restarted class in her back garden. But attendance has fallen 75 percent, and Ms. Bibi has started wearing an all-covering burqa to work to avoid attracting the Taliban’s attention.
“Teaching here was never easy,” Ms. Bibi said.
She noted a prevailing conservative mind-set in which education is the preserve of boys. But she added, “Now it’s fear and growing extremism that are making parents keep children at home.”
The attacks on schools are mostly the work of the Pakistani Taliban, who see girls’ education as un-Islamic. The group earned global scorn and revulsion after it proudly claimed responsibility for the attack on Ms. Yousafzai — a claim that, at least briefly,helped rally Pakistani public opinion against the movement.
In Swat, which lies about 50 miles east of Mohmand, deeper in the mountains, some tribesmen have lionized Ms. Yousafzai as a teenage heroine who stood up to the Taliban where many others have faltered. Despite continuing threats, the girls’ school that she attended, which was run by her father, is open and running at full strength.
“We were not expecting the pupils to come back, but they did,” said the school administrator, Iqbal Khan.
Ms. Yousafzai, meanwhile, has resumed her schooling, at Edgbaston High School for Girls in Birmingham, England. Another teenage girl hurt in the October attack recently arrived in England to join her.
“They will not stop me,” Ms. Yousafzai recently wrote on her Facebook page. “I will get my education, if it is in home, school or any place.”
But Ms. Yousafzai’s plight has also provoked some contrary reactions in her own community, ranging from jealousy and suspicion to naked fear. An attempt to rename a government girls’ school after her failed after students loudly protested that, by associating with Ms. Yousafzai, they would make targets of themselves.
In the bazaar, some residents hint at resentment toward the global attention to Ms. Yousafzai. Some complain that it has overshadowed the bravery of other young women. Others indulge in muttered conspiracies about Western intervention.
Some have posted crude abuse on Ms. Yousafzai’s Facebook page alongside the praise for her campaign, calling her a “kanjri” — an Urdu word for a prostitute — or an “American agent.”
“Many people think it is a fabricated drama,” said Ihsanullah Khan, 35, a university lecturer in Swat’s main town, Mingora. “And so many other people have spoken out against militants, or sacrificed their lives. Why are they forgotten?”
Equally, though, the Taliban war on education has strengthened the resolve of Pakistani leaders who see no choice but to stand up against the militants’ cultural and religious dictates.
Mr. Haider, the tribal leader in Ghalanai, said the Taliban had recently kidnapped one of his relatives because he allowed the security forces to draw water from wells on the family’s land.
Since elections in May, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, bordering the tribal belt, has been governed by the party of Imran Khan, a charismatic politician who has a reputation for being soft on the Taliban, yet who has also increased the provincial education budget by 30 percent.
Yet the decision about whether to defy Taliban edicts on girls’ schooling often falls to individual families. The greatest resistance often comes from fearful fathers, said Ms. Bibi, the teacher in Shabqadar.
“They say they don’t want their daughters to become the next Malala,” she said.
Taha Siddiqui reported from Ghalanai, and Declan Walsh from London. Sana ul Haq contributed reporting from Swat, Pakistan.