Taliban fails to destroy girls' spirit to attain education

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Hearts sink in Swat, Pakistan as young girls see their future up in flames. Classroom walls that were once adorned with painted flowers and butterflies are now charred with the fires of illiteracy and fundamentalism. Libraries, playrooms, and school clinics have all taken the form of ruins since the large-scale violence inflicted by the Taliban on the region that was once fondly known as the “Switzerland” of Asia, and is now most aptly referred to as the “lost paradise.”

According to Sher Afzal Khan, the district head of the Education Department, 187 schools in Swat have either been burned down or bombed, of which 121 were girls’ schools, within a period of 20 months. The most recent attacks destroyed over 50 schools, including any that tried to reopen, disrupting months of these children’s education.

Classroom photographs taken prior to the destruction show girls seated in neat uniforms, with an earnest enthusiasm in their eyes to broaden their horizons — a desire to learn that is being crushed by the Taliban. I find the thought of education being denied to me highly inconceivable. As a Pakistani, I find it to be a criminal act committed against my country, preparing it for a menacingly bleak future. And as a Muslim woman, I find it to be the most obnoxious violation of my basic rights and freedoms.

Historically, Islam was one of the first religions to acknowledge women. In fact, the concept of “women’s rights” was never realized as a movement the way it was in the West, simply because it was inherent in the religion. Education, for both men and women, is not an option or an opportunity in Islam; it is a responsibility and a duty toward oneself as well as toward society. To educate oneself and battle ignorance is forbidden nowhere in Islam, but only in the selfish sociopolitical agendas of fundamentalist groups.

Groups condemning women’s education are not a recent phenomenon in Pakistan, nor is it limited to the Taliban. While most of the urban population progressed with time, many rural areas, such as Gujrat and Meerwala, are still infested with individuals and “councils” that advocate illiteracy among women. Naturally, with the rise of the Taliban, this counterproductive attitude has managed to intensify among certain people.

No wonder then, even after 60 years of independence, Pakistan’s literacy rate is only 50 percent — a consequence of denying women the right to an education.

Though they face poor odds, many young girls have not lost hope or courage. Living examples of such great strength are 19-year-old Shamsia and 16-year-old Atifa from Kandahar, Afghanistan, who were attacked and scorched with acid by Taliban militants on their way to school. Even as she suffeed from severe acid burns, Shamsia told CNN that she will not leave school and her “greatest revenge will be an education.”

Many continue to discriminate against women by burning down girls’ schools or preventing them from leading a healthy lifestyle by banning physical activities like yoga (yes, a group of Malaysia’s leading Islamic clerics has actually prohibited women from practicing yoga). But this kind of chauvinism masked by Islam is only further strengthening Muslim women, giving them more incentive and fueling their thirst for the best, most holistic educational experience possible.

While the government of Pakistan claims that its recent truce, which legalizes the Talibanization along with the Taliban’s interpretation of Shariah, is not an act of negotiation with the Taliban but with the indigenous administration, the Pakistani media and secretly given civilian accounts indicate quite the opposite.

In this situation, I cannot help but wonder what the people of Swat want. As a young girl, in addition to my British school curriculum, I was home-tutored in Islamic studies by an elderly gentleman from Swat who was by no means an extremist or a religious pedagogue adamant on teaching me the tenets of hatred. In fact, he simultaneously gave me lessons in Urdu and mathematics, courses I could only miraculously pass in school. At this point, I can’t imagine that man, who was also a practicing Muslim, a scholar, and advocate of Islamic thought, approving this criminal injustice that is being inflicted upon the people of Swat.

If what the people want is the imposition of strict Shariah, which according to the interpretation of the region’s Taliban allows them to deny basic rights like education to girls, why are there anonymous protests from citizens? If this is their dream society, why did they flee by the thousands? Almost one-third of the 1.5 million have fled Swat and migrated to major cities like Karachi and Lahore, working menial jobs to support their families, or have found refuge in Afghan refugee camps in the North West Frontier province.

After the government declared a permanent ceasefire on Saturday, the Taliban continue to decide among themselves whether they will cooperate with the government or wreak havoc in the region. While boys’ schools will reopen next week, a decision for the continuation of girls’ schools is still a “topic under discussion,” says a CNN report.

It is disgraceful that the future of the women of Pakistan should even remotely be determined by unfairly and illegally constructed laws of the Taliban.