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Nicholas Kristof: What scares Taliban more than U.S. drones packing Hellfire missiles? Educated girls

Twice the Taliban threw warning letters into the home of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistan girl who is one of the world's most persuasive advocates for girls' education. They told her to stop her advocacy -- or else.

She refused to back down, stepped up her campaign and even started a fund to help impoverished Pakistani girls get an education. So, on Tuesday, masked gunmen approached her school bus and asked for her by name. Then they shot her in the head and neck.

"Let this be a lesson," a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said afterward. He added that if she survives, the Taliban would try to kill her again.

Surgeons have removed a bullet from Malala, and she remains unconscious in critical condition in a hospital in Peshawar. A close family friend, Fazal Moula Zahid, told me that doctors are hopeful that there has been no brain damage and that she will ultimately return to school.

"After recovery, she will continue to get an education," Fazal said. "She will never, never drop out of school. She will go to the last."

"Please thank all your people who are supporting us and who stand with us in this war," he added. "You energize us."

The day before Malala was shot, far away in Indonesia, another 14-year-old girl seeking an education suffered from a different kind of misogyny. Sex traffickers had reached out to this girl through her Facebook profile, then detained her and raped her for a week. They released her after her disappearance made the local news.

When her private junior high school got wind of what happened, it told her she had "tarnished the school's image," according to an account from Indonesia's National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The school publicly expelled her -- in front of hundreds of classmates -- for having been raped.

These events coincide with the first international Day of the Girl on Thursday, and they remind us that the global struggle for gender equality is the paramount moral struggle of this century, equivalent to the campaigns against slavery in the 19th century and against totalitarianism in the 20th century.

Here in the United States, it's easy to dismiss such incidents as distant barbarities, but we have a blind spot for our own injustices -- like sex trafficking. Across America, teenage girls are trafficked by pimps on web sites like Backpage.com, and then far too often they are treated by police as criminals rather than victims. These girls aren't just expelled from school; they're arrested.

Jerry Sandusky's sex abuse of boys provoked outrage. But similar abuse is routine for trafficked girls across America, and local authorities often shrug with indifference in the same way some people at Penn State evidently did.

We also don't appreciate the way incidents like the attack on Tuesday in Pakistan represent a broad argument about whether girls deserve human rights and equality of education. Malala was a leader of the camp that said "yes." After earlier aspiring to be a doctor, more recently she said she wanted to be a politician -- modeled on President Barack Obama, one of her heroes -- to advance the cause of girls' education.

Pakistan is a country that has historically suffered from timid and ineffectual leadership, unwilling to stand up to militants. Instead, true leadership emerged from a courageous 14-year-old girl.

On the other side are the Taliban, who understand the stakes perfectly. They shot Malala because girls' education threatens everything that they stand for. The greatest risk for violent extremists in Pakistan isn't U.S. drones. It's educated girls.

"This is not just Malala's war," a 19-year-old female student in Peshawar told me. "It is a war between two ideologies, between the light of education and darkness."

She said she was happy to be quoted by name. But after what happened to Malala, I don't dare put her at risk.

For those wanting to honor Malala's courage, there are excellent organizations building schools in Pakistan, such as Developments in Literacy (dil.org) and The Citizens Foundation (tcfusa.org). I've seen their schools and how they transform girls -- and communities.

One of my greatest frustrations when I travel to Pakistan is that I routinely spot extremist madrassas, or schools, financed by medieval misogynists from Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. They provide meals, free tuition and sometimes scholarships to lure boys -- because their donors understand perfectly that education shapes countries.

In contrast, U.S. aid is mainly about supporting the Pakistani army. We have tripled aid to Pakistani education to $170 million annually, and that's terrific. But that's less than one-tenth of our security aid to Pakistan.

In Malala's most recent email to a Times colleague, Adam Ellick, she wrote: "I want an access to the world of knowledge." The Taliban clearly understands the transformative power of girls' education.

Do we?

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.