ISLAMABAD — A 14-year-old girl who became a national heroine when she protested the Pakistani Taliban’s ban on education for girls in her home district was shot in the head Tuesday as she waited for a ride home from her beloved school, according to officials and witnesses.
Malala Yousafzai, who was only 11 when she stood up to the Taliban over their ban, was sitting in a school van in Swat with other students, waiting to go home, when an assailant approached, asked which student was Malala, then opened fire. She was airlifted to a hospital in the provincial capital, where she was reported in critical condition. Fortunately, doctors said, the bullet did not enter her brain.
Claiming responsibility, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the main faction of Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban, warned that if she survived, it would return to attack her again. Earlier this year the TTP had stated that she was on their hit list for her “secular” views.
“She was young but she was promoting Western culture,” TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told local news media, adding that it was a warning to other youngsters.
The Pakistan military supposedly cleared Swat, a district in northern Pakistan, of Taliban in 2009, but the area still has a heavy military presence.
Two girls who were in the van and injured when the gunman opened fire described the attack to local reporters from their hospital beds.
Malala came to the world’s attention when her diary, written under a pseudonym, was the basis for a series of reports by the local Urdu language service of the BBC. In it she described what was happening in Swat, which was then under Taliban control. Then, with the Taliban menace still present, in early 2009 Malala spoke out on television, always sticking carefully to her demand only for schooling.
In a Pakistani television appearance in Swat in early 2009, with Taliban sympathizers in the audience, the then preteen Malala had said, “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one.”
Malala said then that her ambition was to become a politician. “This country is in crisis and our governments are lazy,” she said.
The shooting of the girl more than three years later immediately renewed debate over what to do about the Pakistani Taliban. Despite their relentless violence since 2007, some Pakistanis see the extremist group as nothing more than a reaction to the central government’s support for the American presence in Afghanistan and U.S. drone missile strikes in the country’s tribal area, the Taliban’s traditional area of operation.
Over the weekend, Imran Khan, the former cricket star turned populist politician, led a march to the edge of the tribal area, demanding that peace talks be opened with the Pakistani Taliban and that the drone strikes end.
Media figures and other politicians, shocked by the attack on Malala, quickly denounced the Taliban on Tuesday.
Hamid Mir, Pakistan’s most popular talk show host, began his program with the words: “I can see the whole nation’s head bowed in shame today.”
“I want to ask those who shot a girl who only wanted to go to school: Do you think you are Muslims?”
Speaking in Parliament, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said: “Malala is my daughter, too. She is Pakistan’s daughter. If this (extremist) mindset persists, which girl in Pakistan will be safe?”
Swat, a mountainous area that was known as a holiday resort and does not border Afghanistan, started to come under the creeping control of the Pakistani Taliban over several years, from at least 2005. The extremists’ domination was complete by 2007, seemingly accepted by Pakistan’s central government, which in February 2009 signed a treaty with the Taliban that effectively handed them Swat. It was only after U.S. pressure, and the Taliban’s decision to stage a takeover of the neighboring district of Buner, that the Pakistani military launched an operation to dislodge them in May 2009.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.