In Pakistan two and a half weeks ago, a 14-year old girl, Malala Yousafza, was shot in the head by the Taliban. She was rushed to a London hospital where another potential brush with death was forestalled: British authorities turned away numerous men claiming to be her relatives.
Why did the Taliban attempt to assassinate a girl? Why is it that this young teenager is not just an object of their derision but their mortal hatred? Why do they see her as a threat?
Miss Yousafza began blogging for the BBC when she was just 11 years old, when the Taliban took over her beloved Swat Valley in Pakistan. According to the BBC, in January 2009 she wrote, “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the TalibanI was afraid going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools. Only 11 students attended the class out of 27.”
The blog posts of this child — at age 11 and 12 — showed the world the violence and repression endemic to Taliban rule. She wrote, “On my way from school to home I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you’. I hastened my pace…to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”
It is hard for us to imagine a place where death threats are so common and so real that a man will shout them over the telephone in a public place, but that is what Miss Yousafza experienced when the Taliban took over.
Somehow, this girl threatens the Taliban so much that they tried to assassinate her. What does she symbolize that is so threatening to them? The facts are quite clear: She is an advocate for basic human and civil rights. She has claimed that all citizens, including women—Muslim women, Pakistani women, Afghan women—should have basic access to education. That is all.
Is it just her call for female education that threatens the Taliban? No. There are millions of women — and men — on both sides of the Af-Pak border who call for the education of their daughters, sisters and nieces. Education is not the issue that threatens the Taliban.
Rather, she is the threat. This girl represents the possible. She represents the kind of woman the Taliban fears: a living, God-fearing alternative to their repressive social order. Indeed, what terrifies the Taliban the most is that Miss Yousafza is a traditional Muslim citizen. This young woman covers her hair; she is modest; she respects the Prophet; she respects Allah; she roots her arguments in common sense, faith and human dignity, and she tells the truth about what she sees.
There is nothing more threatening to the Taliban, because Miss Yousafza is in accord with the values of the majority of Muslims around the world. In short, the Taliban fear her because she represents a vision of the female Muslim citizen that resonates with the Muslim everyman and everywoman — and threatens to dump the Taliban into the ashbin of history.
In contrast to Malala Yousafza, the Taliban does not fear a nude model or pop star from the West. This is because most Pakistanis—men and women — see pornography as sinful and decadent and in many cases taking advantage of women. Likewise, the Taliban is not really concerned about the feminists housed in Western universities. Once again, this type of person is so far out of synch with Muslim culture that she is seen as alien and enemy to their culture — something with which many Pakistanis would agree.
Consequently, there are no fatwas against Madonna, Britney Spears or Women’s Studies professors from Wellesley.
Malala Yousafza is not a morally debased pop star, a social activist or a radical academic. She is a modest, pious young Muslim woman who represents tens of millions of Muslim women around the world who want a better life for the women in their families. That is why the Taliban is scared of a girl.
Eric Patterson is associate professor and Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and author of Politics in a Religious World: Building a Religiously Informed U.S. Foreign Policy.