The Taliban attack on 15-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai reverberates in Americans of Pakistan descent 10 days after she was shot in the head while riding in a school bus in Mingora, the largest city of the Swat Valley in Pakistan’s troubled northwest.
Now considered an icon for girl education the world over, Malala has helped unite the divided Pakistani nation on the question of how to deal with extremism. Pakistan has seen unprecedented condemnation of the attack on Malala who is undergoing treatment at Queens Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, U.K.
The sentiment on the streets of New York, especially in South Asian enclaves such as Jackson Heights, Queens, and Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn is no different.
A stream of opinion articles, press statements and media talks by community leaders and commentators, as well as regular folks have a similar message: the time has come for Pakistan to go after terrorists hiding in the treacherous mountains along the country’s porous border with Afghanistan. There have been calls for launching a military operation against the militant hideouts in North Waziristan, the home of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the terrorist group fighting the Pakistani state.
“Will Malala prove to be a game changer because she has done what (Pakistan) army could not do? She united the people on the question of girl education,” wrote Masoud Haider, a veteran New York-based Pakistani journalist who is a correspondent for Pakistan’s largest daily Dawn, in the Pakistan Post. “Malala brought a revolution despite being from a region where common folks didn’t even hear girls’ whispers. She herself didn’t know on that fateful day when she was ambushed on her way to school that her voice was so powerful that it could stand up to Taliban.”
A number of New York-based Pakistani and South Asian community groups, including Voice of Pakistanis Abroad (VOPA) and Social Uplift, Knowledge Hope Initiatives (SUKHI), screened A Schoolgirl’s Odyssey, a 20-minute documentary produced by New York Times on the struggle of Malala.
The video was shown after the live screening of the vice presidential debate on October 11 at Diversity Plaza, on 37th Road in the heart of Jackson Heights. Interestingly, according to senior community journalist Hasan Mujataba, some Pakistani and Bangladeshi community members objected to the showing of the video. Mujtaba mentioned the incident in an article in the Pakistan Post.
Agha Saleh, one of the film screening organizers, told Voices of NY that some community members approached him to stop the showing. “Their pretext was that the film’s screening will promote Taliban cause,” said Saleh, adding that he still could not comprehend the logic. The screenings attracted politicians such as City Comptroller John C. Liu and Councilman Daniel Dromm to watch the presidential and vice presidential debates along with over 300 people from the area.
Saleh said his organization is promoting the Swati cap, a woolen cap widely popular in the Swat and Chitral valleys of Pakistan, as “Malala cap,” a way of telling the world that Malala is the true face of this picturesque part of Pakistan that has seen a rise in militancy since the 1990s. The first cap was presented to Councilman Daniel Dromm.
“VOPA distributed the Malala caps among people on the street with an appeal to wear it this winter as message to the evil forces that majority of the human beings reject their extremists cowardly acts,” said Saleh.
“We are not going to stop sending our girls to school or university,” Bazah Roohi, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur who founded the non-profit American Council of Minority Women in 2005 told Desi Talk.
She said if the Taliban was expecting schools and colleges to shut down because they shot an innocent child who campaigned for the right to education, they were sorely mistaken. It was not Pakistanis who did it, she said, and everyone back home believed these are people who wanted to give Pakistan a bad name.
“There have been so many educated women around Pakistan for so many decades, in every field. We are going to fight them. They do not frighten us,” Roohi said.
Some community members believe that the fight in Pakistani’s mountainous northwest is not just against the bandits, thugs, violent extremists and terrorists but also against a mindset.
“Pakistan is at war with the Taliban mindset and their narrative. Their defeat lies in taking away the narrative from them,” said Nafis Takkar, executive editor of Deewa radio, Voice of America’s Pashto language radio channel for northwestern Pakistan, during a interview with a Pakistani TV show in the U.S.
“Malala is the true face of Pakistan. She is a beacon of hope for girls education in Pakistan,” he added on Khabar-o-Nazar (News and Views), hosted by this reporter. Takkar believed the best way to fight extremism could be through the spread of education, especially among girls, transparent and efficient government and bringing opportunity and hope to the region.
But some people are voicing suspicions about the motives behind the brutal Taliban attack on the girl. Some Pakistani-American critics of U.S. policy in the region, such as Ansar Ahmad, do not hide their fears that the government could use the incident as a pretext for a military operation in the mountainous regions of northwest Pakistan, bordering with Afghanistan.
“I oppose the attack on North Waziristan at this stage because it is not in Pakistan’s national interests,” Ahmad, a former pilot fighter in Pakistan’s Air Force who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, told Voices of NY.
According to the regional government of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, the province of which Swat is a part, extremists have completely destroyed or partially destroyed over the past few years more than 2,000 schools in the valley and adjoining semi-autonomous tribal regions, leaving more than half a million children without a school.
Saleh said Voice of Pakistani Americans, which has over 18,000 Facebook followers, is currently running a fundraising campaign to rebuild the schools.