AN assault on education, particularly girls’ education, brings back some of the most terrible memories of Pakistan’s fight against extremism.

Early Friday morning, at least 13 government and private schools in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Diamer district were vandalised; several were set on fire. Most of them were girls’ schools, including one which has been attacked five times since 2004.

Fortunately, there was no one present on the premises at the time. According to law enforcement, preliminary investigations indicate that the perpetrators were not associated with any militant group but locals opposed to girls’ education.

It is therefore some consolation that a good number of other locals in the area hold very different views: members of political parties, student groups and local organisations came out in droves to hold protest demonstrations, shouting slogans against extremism and demanding that the culprits be severely punished.

Deliberate, wilful attacks on schools in any setting — and by definition, on education itself — are worthy of condemnation in the strongest terms, but they have a particularly symbolic significance in the context of Pakistan’s recent history.

They are associated with some of its worst tragedies, and also its most enduring acts of bravery. In fact, a campaign of intimidation against girls’ education from 2008 onwards was among the initial indications of the TTP’s increasing hold over Swat Valley, when it started asserting itself outside Fata.

In early 2009, the terrorist group ordered a complete ban on girls’ education. Resistance to these ominous developments coalesced in the form of young Malala Yousafzai, whose bravery very nearly got her killed by the TTP, and who went on to become an international icon for the right of girls to education.

In early 2014, 15-year-old Aitzaz Hasan gave his life while preventing a suicide bomber from attacking his school in Hangu, KP.

Later that year, on Dec 16, a group of TTP militants targeted the Army Public School, Peshawar, and slaughtered 132 students and 17 staffers in one of the country’s deadliest acts of terrorism.

Hundreds of schools, mostly for girls, have been bombed by militants during the last decade or so.

Opposition to girls’ education is a trait common to violent extremist organisations, and Friday’s attack in Diamer is evidence that a similar mindset continues to prevail in parts of the country; indeed, the district has long been known as a hotbed of radical and sectarian groups.

The authorities must act swiftly to find the perpetrators before their actions embolden others to once again make the obliteration of girls’ schools the centrepiece of an obscurantist agenda.

Literacy rates in Diamer are abysmal and in terms of education indices, it ranks among the 10 lowest-ranking districts in Pakistan.

Fortunately though, it seems many of its residents are prepared to fight for the right of their girls to go to school. The state must not let them down.

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2018



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