Fanatics vs. Females

Shirin Tahir-Kheli: Pakistan Is Everybody’s Problem

The whole world bears responsibility for ending the Taliban’s war against women. By Shirin Tahir-Kheli.

Shakil Adil / AP Photo

The targeted shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan on Tuesday was another stark reminder of the Taliban’s defiance of the government and its efforts to push Pakistan into the dark ages. That women and girls are a special target is once again cynically displayed in the wretched words of the Taliban leadership celebrating their deed. The world has been asking, “What has happened in Pakistan?” for a long time. Now it is time for the world to take action.

The nation’s president, prime minister, and army chief all said the right things when Malala suffered potentially lethal wounds to her head and neck. The army took charge of her medical treatment in one of the few good facilities in Peshawar. A jet was put on standby in order to fly her abroad for treatment, were it needed. The interior minister declared that Malala has become an “icon for the country.”

If only that were true. Hundreds of girls’ schools have been destroyed without much of a concerted response from Pakistan’s officials. The intimidation of women and girls in the northern province is so complete that few venture out freely. Traditional Pashtun support for the education of daughters has been undermined by threats against their fathers. Not so long ago, even mullahs were increasingly sending their own girls to schools, segregated but still offering a chance of literacy.

The government that has decried this assassination attempt is the same government that began its career on the heels of the assassination of another female, its leader Benazir Bhutto. Both Bhutto and Yousafzai are symbols of the serious malaise afflicting Pakistan today. A country that could produce a female prime minister, but not protect her, is shown to be once again supportive of female education but unwilling and thus unable to keep in check the dark forces of Taliban terror pulling the country into a future where girls are ignorant, uneducated, and living as less than second-class citizens.

All this is done in the name of Islam: religion is a scapegoat for the uninformed, backward males who believe that they are the true guardians of a Pakistan created in the name of religion.

The Islam I know has exhorted its followers to enable both men and women to strive for knowledge. It called upon males and females to do good work and to reap the rewards equally. The Quran admonished as evildoers the perpetrators of the practice where girls were buried at birth. There are a number of orders in the Quran and the Hadith that call for the education of both men and women, noting that “acquisition of knowledge is the duty of every male and female believer.”

The breakdown of law and order in Pakistan has occurred over time. But the manifest absence of the government’s writ in many parts of the country is accelerating alarmingly because resources for development are lacking. With almost 50 percent of its 180 million strong population under the age of 29, government priorities need restructuring.

Budgets for the education of girls are dropping. Yet they represent the future of Pakistan in fundamental ways. Beyond budgets, the daily lives of the country’s citizens revolve around survival, especially in areas where the Taliban hold sway. Pakistan’s north was always a conservative society. But it was never a place where vigilantism ensured arbitrary enforcement of codes of behavior.

Responsibility for Pakistan’s destiny extends beyond its borders. The worst elements wreaking havoc in Pakistan were imported into the country from Muslim neighbors who paid their wages in the 1980s. Having dispatched “godless communists” from Afghanistan in 1987, these terrorist elements have turned inward. They are building support within Pakistani cities and offer a future that resembles the Middle Ages, at best.

Countries like Saudi Arabia can no longer shrug off their influence over the Taliban. Saudi financial support for Taliban mullahs and mosques is funding the Taliban war on women in Pakistan. The argument that support for the Taliban is not state-sanctioned by the Saudis but merely a spinoff of private donations by rich Saudis is simply not good enough.

Concerned outsiders such as the United States can make the case, but in the end it is the business of the Pakistani government and its military to call for transparency and accountability in alms coming from outside. There is sufficient coordination between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan whereby this domestic implication of Saudi largesse needs addressing.

All those who support female literacy and access to education must continue to put this item at the front and center of any assistance to Pakistan. Condemning Malala’s shooting by all concerned in the international community was important. But the final measure of defeat for the Taliban will be reflected in a renewed commitment to girls like Malala living out their dreams of education and professional growth and in making sure that her own words, “I have the right to speak up,” becomes a reality.