When gun-toting men stopped their school wagon in Mingora last Tuesday around 12.45 p.m. asking for Malala Yousafzai, none of the three girls inside spoke.
This, despite the terrorists threatening to shoot all of them if they did not identify Malala. Today, stirred by the braveheart, who dared to stand up to the Taliban, and her friends, Shazia and Kainat, who refused to identify her even under threat, girls across Pakistan are saying ‘I am Malala.’
This is happening not just on the social media – which offers a degree of anonymity and security – but also on television and on the streets; some with their faces uncovered. ‘I-am-Malala’ has been trending not just in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan where girls’ education is equally at risk from the very same elements. On Saturday, the Afghanistan Education Ministry organised a nationwide prayer for her at schools. She is being likened to ‘Malalai of Maiwand’ who rallied the Pashtun army against the British in 1880.
In an echo of the Pakistan People’s Party pet slogan kitne Bhutto maroge, har ghar se Bhutto niklega (how many Bhuttos will you kill, every house will produce one), the refrain across the country is “how many Malalas will you kill?’’ As daily vigils are being organised to pray for the speedy recovery of Malala and her friends, girls were coming forward; willing to stand up and be counted. If anything, the fate of Malala – who came to represent the ‘voice of the girls of Swat’ because of her blog, written under the pseudonym Gul Makai, in which she advocated girls’ right to education during the Taliban reign of terror over Swat – has made the media a bit circumspect about exposing the girls too much for fear that the terrorists might target them, too.
Still, at vigils and demonstrations, children are turning up in considerable numbers; a rare sight in Pakistan where crowds are avoided given the impunity with which terrorists penetrate. Parents could also be seen encouraging their children to join in the slogan-shouting against the Taliban who have been nicknamed ‘Zaliman’ (ruthless) by Interior Minister Rehman Malik. In fact, the daily photographs of girls praying in schools for Malala is itself a testimony that the Taliban have not been successful in deterring the desire among most Pakistanis to send their girls to school after this latest round of violence targeting girls education.
Despite the terrorists bombing hundreds of girls’ schools, nearly two lakh girls are still enrolled in schools across the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). These figures may not stand scrutiny – given the issues that bog government-run school education in the sub-continent – but recent reports from the frontier regions have shown girls not only attending schools in FATA but also travelling to Peshawar to compete in sporting events.