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Malala's tragedy a test for Pakistani society








On the morning of October 12, Malala Yousafzai had 70 percent chances of recovery; amazing, considering she was shot at point-blank range only a few days ago. Having successfully removed a bullet from her spinal cord, doctors treating her at a military hospital in Rawalpindi reportedly informed her family that her recovery in the following days would be critical. So we wait patiently for news, preferably good, from her bedside.

While Yousafzai rests, the world outside is in a nervous tizzy. The Taliban is now threatening members of the Pakistani media for their coverage, and strong stance, on this incident. According to a BBC Urdu report, intelligence agencies have intercepted conversations between Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsoud and his subordinates, in which he reportedly directed them to take action against opponents in the media. The government is now offering protection to any media organisation that seeks it.

Indeed, this erstwhile blogger-for-the-BBC has been the headline to beat ever since October 9. That's when her school bus was stopped by a Taliban gunman in a town named Mingora, in Pakistan's restive Swat valley in the North West. He demanded that she identify herself, then shot her repeatedly. (Two of her schoolmates, both girls, were injured as well.)

The unwarranted viciousness of the attack has spurred Pakistan's most influential men into speaking out in protest, using strong words in turn: "inhuman", "barbaric", "terrorist". Late night on October 12, The Guardian reported that, taking an exceptionally critical stance, the Sunni Ittehad Council has issued a fatwa denouncing the Taliban's attempts to justify Yousafzai's shooting. October 12 was marked as a day of prayers for Yousafzai and observed across Pakistani mosques.

In the last week, public figures, including Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani, Chief Justice Ifthikar and Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf, have visited Yousafzai, while calling on the nation to stand united against those who attacked her. President Asif Ali Zardari reportedly reached out to Yousafzai's family. Interior Minister Rehman Malik termed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region a hub for terrorists, adding that the government is seriously considering another offensive in the north-western tribal agencies. Not to be left out, Imran Khan, viewed off late as a serious political threat to Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), offered to foot the costs of her treatment.

However, Khan has been criticised by some sections for turning the debate back towards the unmanned drones that have killed thousands of Pakistanis. Khan isn't the only one liable to make the same tenuous link between a barbaric act and a foreign attack on Pakistani sovereignty.

Although his is an important voice, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazal, used the opportunity to condemn Yousafzai's attackers to also censure those who do not protest the bombing of a mosque by drones as vociferously. It's this digression of the argument that Najam Sethi, editor of the weekly The Friday Times, railed against in his editorial: "To suggest that Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head because of America's drones is not just lazy deduction; it is disingenuous, even dangerous deflection from the real issue."

At the very least, there is the common denominator of disgust at the TTP's actions and rationalisations. But some chose to see a silver lining - like Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who told the CNN that Yousafzai's unfortunate case brings the promise of a "turning point". This is signified by the rejection by many Pakistanis of the justifications offered by the Taliban. The prayers being offered in mosques and schools for her speedy recovery, demonstrations in the streets, and strong statements made every day since October 9 -- all serve as proof for those who are hope for the reintroduction of a rational debate over religious devotion versus fanaticism. Indeed, Yousafzai's case is being described as a watershed moment in Pakistan's contemporary history.

More importantly, the attackers have inadvertently glorified Yousafzai's role as an activist and articulate critic of the Taliban. Having found fame (and infamy in some quarters) through her diaries for BBC Urdu, Yousafzai had already won admirers, even awards, for her outspokenness.

This week, as newshounds tracked her every development, the world was reminded of the innocent charm of this Anne Frank-like observer. Her diaries for the BBC, recorded in 2009 when she was a mere 11-year-old, did more than just detail the fear psychosis surrounding the Taliban. Her accounts highlighted the sadness, frustration and fear of a girl child who craved knowledge, as well as the company of others like her.

In January 2009 she recorded, "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."

The Taliban continues to threaten Yousafzai. She will need continued support and protection from Pakistani society if she is to escape a repeat attempt.

(Gayathri Sreedharan is a researcher who worked with the BBC's South Asia bureau in Delhi from 2008 to 2011. She can be reached at sreedharan.gayathri@googlemail.com).

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-- Indo-Asian News Service

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Gayathri Sreedharan

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