It was summer 2012.
It was the most painful season for the girls of Swat Valley, Pakistan, because, at that time, Maulana Fazlullah, the leader of the Taliban, became very aggressive in his opposition to girl’s education. He not only banned education for girls but also destroyed over 200 girl’s schools.
In order to spread fear, his followers put the dead body of a beheaded police officer on display by a supermarket near the house of Malala Yousafzai, an activist for female education. Moreover, Fazlullah launched one of the most notorious trials in human history: the Trial of Malala.
This trial shocked the world. Why would the men of Swat Valley, known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, decide to kill a schoolgirl? The shock was even greater because this little girl was simply trying to use the media to promote education for girls. What could Malala have written, said, or done to prompt Fazlullah to launch a trial against her? After hearing complaints from his fellow jihadists, Fazlullah ordered them to kill Malala. He cited four “impious” acts she had committed: failing to acknowledge the laws of the Taliban, which ban all girls from going to school; writing against the Taliban on the BBC in 2009; telling the media, in 2010, that only education can free girls from exploitation by the Taliban; and claiming that Islamic traditions, such as wearing a burka, are not sent from Allah but imposed by the Taliban, so women have the right to change such cultural rules. Therefore, it was not difficult for Fazlullah to announce the cruel verdict: Malala had to die. In fact, his men announced on the local radio that Malala would be killed if she ever went to school.
Asking Malala not to go to school was like asking Socrates to leave Athens. In fact, the Taliban’s political vendetta against Malala could be understood as a modern-day replay of the famous conflict between Socrates and Dikastes. The followers of Alcibiades killed Socrates because they found him guilty of offering education to youths. In a similar reactionary spirit, Fazlullah, who labeled Malala an agent of America and Israel, unleashed followers of Talibans to kill her.
On October 9, 2012, several Taliban gunmen stopped the school bus that was carrying Malala to her home, boarded it, and pointed guns at everyone, asking for Malala. A heavily armed masked man searched for the girl, shouting, “We want to kill her because she is propagating dissent against the jihadists. So, let me know which one of you is Malala; otherwise, I am going to kill you all.” In order to save her classmates, Malala stood up in the middle of the bus and identified herself. The gunman immediately shot her in the head and said, “You’re a symbol of the infidels and obscenity, so you must die.” One bullet went directly through her head, traveled through her neck, and ended up in her left shoulder.
Such violence against women by the Taliban is nothing new on the Indian subcontinent. The gloomy tone of this gender catastrophe was captured by a global poll conducted by Thomson Reuters: Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh form one of the most dangerous regions in the world for women. In these societies, women are continuously victims of violence, rape and murder. In fact, de jure equality between men and women has never been translated into de facto equality on the Indian subcontinent, where women are expected to stay home and give birth. Consequently, many crimes against women go unnoticed. This is why I thought the crimes against Malala would also be ignored.
As a result of this belief, when I was writing Grameen Social Business Model (a book detailing the search for a weapon to use against poverty and terrorism) in 2011, Malala played a key, but secondary, role. But when I was writing another article (“Why do they Hate Obama?”), I found that the force of Malala kept trying to take over, kept trying to grab the spotlight. So I realized that there is another story I would like to tell, which is the story of Malala and how to overcome the biggest challenges of the Indian subcontinent, such as poverty and terrorism. After learning that Malala had won the Nobel Prize, I realized that I should identify the root cause of this problem: what motivated someone to kill a 14-year-old girl? Two root causes of terrorism have been identified: poverty and the “culture of poverty.” The two are positively correlated. That is, there is a direct correlation between the poverty suffered by a family and the probability that the children of that family may later become terrorists like the one who shot Malala. I studied this during my stay in the Dhaka Tajgoen slums in 2007. I put a set of questions to 12 children whose median age was 13. The first was, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” After thinking for a while, they began to mention suitable professions with which they were familiar: rickshaw driving, bus driving, shopkeeping, blacksmithing, fishing, cooking and begging.
None said that they would like to become terrorists, rapists or extremists, although statistics show it is likely that at least some of them will eventually end up becoming those things.
I then asked them whether they had heard about Dhaka University. The answer was “no.” In contrast, I conducted a similar survey with 12 children of the professors of Dhaka University, whose median age was 12. They all wanted to change the world, much the same way Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had. They were also able to accurately write the names of the 2006 Nobel Prize laureates. I have observed exactly the same consequences that Oscar Lewis observed with poor Mexican families, and realized that people who are raised in a “culture of poverty” often lack motivation and ambition. Thus, the children of poor people are more vulnerable, and Taliban leaders like Fazlullah, for example, know that and often recruit these teenagers and unleash them to fight for Allah.
Malala was right when she addressed this issue at the United Nations: “They think that Allah is a tiny conservative being who would send girls to hell just for going to school. The terrorists are misusing the name of Islam for their own personal benefit.” However, killing these extremists with bombs will not solve the problem because drone strikes only help to further fuel terrorism. So the question is simple, how can we overcome the biggest challenges of our time: poverty and terrorism? The answer is even simpler: education.
Malala did not invent education but reminded us of its importance by writing for BBC blogs, taking a stand against the Taliban’s rules against female education, and boarding a school bus despite the near certainty that she would be shot by the Taliban. Like Malala, let’s help all the women and children of the Indian subcontinent to use the momentum created by this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to accelerate women’s emancipation. We can each do our part simply by holding this chant in our respective hearts: I, too, am a Malala, and I, too, am a servant of Education.
The author is a CRISP scholar at New York University.