Taliban wages war against girls' education in Pakistan

COMPASS: Other points of view

March 4, 2009 

I recently watched "Class Dismissed in Swat Valley," a short, sobering video on The New York Times Web site. It's about the Taliban's decision to ban girls' education in the beautiful and formerly peaceful Swat Valley of northern Pakistan, the country where I was born and raised.

The video profiled Ziauddin Yousafzai, an educator, and his 11-year-old daughter, Malala, who dreams of becoming a doctor. As Malala talked about her desire, she knew she might have to defer that dream. To conceal her tears, she covered her face with her hands; tears welled up in my own eyes.

Malala's school, owned by her father, would close the next day. The Taliban has burned or bombed more than 100 girls' schools. Ziauddin feared if he defied the ban his school would be destroyed.

Driving my teenage daughter to Steller Secondary School a few days later, I felt thankful for living in a country where girls don't worry about getting educated or fulfilling their dreams. Clusters of children waiting for school buses reminded me of that sad little girl in Swat. I thought of Swati children passing corpses in their streets; studying amid a din of gunships and military helicopters; going to bed with mortar rounds echoing from the hills, worrying about the Taliban killing them. No children should have to endure that.

On what she feared would be her last day in Ziauddin's school, another young girl, covered in black to hide her identity, expressed her fellow students' disappointment. She read a statement declaring that there was no one who could return her valley to peace and that "Our dreams are shattered. And let me say we are destroyed."

Alaska, my home for the last 31 years, is much like what that far-away, gorgeous valley once was. Swat was a place where people went about their lives without fear, conducted their businesses in peace, and sent their children, boys and girls, to school and colleges. But today girls in Swat have limited choices.

I felt nothing but rage and helplessness after watching that film. I didn't know what to do. But I resolved to inform people about the situation in Swat. I believe the best way to fight the war on terror is with education, not with aerial drones that drop missiles, which also kill civilians, create more militancy and spawn new recruits of the Taliban. While I don't agree with our policy of escalating unmanned drone attacks within Pakistan, I do agree with the idea of increasing aid that aims to empower the populace there -- through development programs and education.

I also resolved to find Ziauddin and offer him my support. I have since spoken to both Ziauddin and Malala. They thanked me for caring enough to call them. I told them how their story had moved me and asked them if I could help them in any way. Their response: Tell others about us and ask people to watch the video.

I'll be spending the month of May in Pakistan. And though Ziauddin invited me to visit Swat, I likely won't. The security situation is tenuous, and I am a coward.

But he has vowed to stay and help his people. I do intend to send some books to Malala from Karachi and offer moral support.

Since the video aired, the government of Pakistan has ceded Swat to the Taliban, who, for now, will allow girls to return to school and take their exams in March. But the Taliban has not decided if girls will be allowed schooling beyond fourth grade.

Ziauddin has reopened his school, but doesn't know what the future holds. Malala, who still dares to hope, told me: "I won't let the Taliban stop me. I will get an education somehow. Maybe in Swat, maybe somewhere else."

I hope she succeeds.

Shehla Anjum, a longtime Anchorage resident, was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. All of the women in her family were educated to become professionals.

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