Malala Yousafzai

Terrorism won't stop education of Pakistani girls

Shahid Javed Burki says rising enrolment figures tell of a revolution in the making in Pakistan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2012, 3:04am

The men who attempted to kill 14-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan this month knew what she represented. Her active involvement since the age of 11 in campaigning for the rights of girls in her region to be educated was well known.

Malala's efforts, while applauded by the West and some segments of Pakistani society, were deeply resented by the obscurantist forces that go by the name of the Taliban. Their choice of name is ironic, for Taliban means those seeking to be educated, whereas the Taliban's principal aim is to keep Muslim societies backward so that they can be persuaded to adopt a seventh-century version of Islam.

Education, particularly of women, stands in the way of achieving this goal. But the attack on Malala will, most likely, have an effect that is opposite to that intended by the Taliban.

Several religious leaders joined the chorus of condemnation that followed the attack on Malala. A council of Sunni Muslim scholars in the eastern city of Lahore issued a fatwa, signed by 50 clerics, saying that the justifications cited by the girl's attackers were "deviant" and had no basis in Islamic law.

The Taliban seem to have been taken aback by the public and media reaction to the attack. Dawn, Pakistan's largest-circulation English-language newspaper, reported that the Pakistani Taliban's leader had ordered his soldiers to target media organisations. The extremists wanted to silence the majority that was waking up to the existential threat that radical Islam poses to their country.

There is a widespread belief that Pakistani women are doing poorly when it comes to obtaining education. That impression is correct to some extent.

That said, from 1993 to 2010, the number of girls enrolled in primary education increased from 3.7 million to 8.3 million. But girls still accounted for just 44.3 per cent of the total number of enrolled students in 2010.

It is in higher education that Pakistani women have made extraordinary progress in recent years. Their share of total college enrolment has increased from 36 per cent to 57 per cent over the last couple of decades.

Had Malala died, she would eventually have been forgotten. But her survival - and possible full recovery - provides a vibrant symbol for a troubled country. She will begin to be identified with the change that is already under way.

It is not often recognised that women in Pakistan - at least those of a certain class - are receiving the kind of education that enables them to enter the modern sectors of the economy or to become entrepreneurs. In education, numbers make a revolution. The extremists understand that all too well.

Shahid Javed Burki, former finance minister of Pakistan, is chairman of the Institute of Public Policy in Lahore. Copyright: Project Syndicate