The Girl Who Changed Pakistan

Article excerpt

Byline: Shehrbano Taseer

Shehrbano Taseer, whose father was killed by the Taliban, takes an insider's look at the 15-year-old girl who may finally turn the tide on extremism.

The teenage girls chatted to each other and their teachers as the school bus rattled along the country road. Students from a girls' high school in Swat, they had just finished a term paper, and their joy was evident as they broke into another Pashto song. About a mile outside the city of Mingora, two men flagged down and boarded the bus, one of them pulling out a gun. "Which one of you is Malala Yousafzai?" he demanded. No one spoke--some out of loyalty, others out of fear. But, unconsciously, their eyes turned to Malala. "That's the one," the gunman said, looking the 15-year-old girl in the face and pulling the trigger twice, shooting her in the head and neck. He fired twice more, wounding two other girls, and then both men fled the scene.

Over the screams and tears of the girls, a teacher instructed the bus driver to drive to a local hospital a few miles away. She stared in horror at Malala's body, bleeding profusely and slumped unconscious in her friend's lap, then closed her eyes and started to pray.

As of this writing, Malala fights for her life at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, England. Her would-be killers have not yet been caught. But it's clear who bears responsibility. And in the days since the Oct. 9 assault on her, sadness, fury, and indignation have swept the world.

For months a team of Taliban sharpshooters studied the daily route that Malala took to school, and, once the attack was done, the Tehrik-e-Taliban in Pakistan gleefully claimed responsibility, saying Malala was an American spy who idolized the "black devil Obama." She had spoken against the Taliban, they falsely said, and vowed to shoot her again, should she survive.

The power of ignorance is frightening. My father, Salmaan Taseer, was murdered last January after he stood up for Aasia Noreen, a voiceless, forgotten Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy. My father, the governor of Punjab province at the time, believed that our country's blasphemy laws had been misused; that far too frequently, they were taken advantage of to settle scores and personal vendettas.

In the days before my father's murder, fanatics had called for a fatwa against him and had burned him in effigy at large demonstrations. His confessed shooter, a 26-year-old man named Mumtaz Qadri, said he had been encouraged to kill my father after hearing a sermon by a cleric, who, frothing at the mouth, screeched to 150 swaying men to kill my father, the "blasphemer." Qadri, a police guard, had been assigned to protect my father. Instead, on the afternoon of Jan. 4, my brother Shehryar's 25th birthday, he killed my father, firing 27 bullets into his back as he walked home.

My father, one of the first members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, was frequently imprisoned and tortured for his unwavering belief in freedom and democracy under the harsh dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq.

But in later life, as he spoke against the blasphemy laws, his views were distorted to suggest--wrongly--that he had spoken against Prophet Muhammad--just as Malala's views were twisted by both her Taliban attackers and opportunistic politicians peddling poisonous falsehoods for their own gain.

One would think the nightmare and brutality of the Zia regime ended when the tyrant's aircraft fell out of the skies in 1988 and he was killed. We were so wrong.

What the attack on Malala makes clear is that this is really a battle over education. A repressive mindset has been allowed to flourish in Pakistan because of the madrassa system set up by power-hungry clerics. It's a deeply rooted indoctrination, and it sickens me to see ancient religious traditions undermined by a harsher form of religion barely a generation old. …