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The indispensable half

October 18, 2012

IT says much for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan that they should have used the only weapon they know — a gun — against an unarmed 14-year-old schoolgirl whose only defence against them was her brain.

The two cowards who shot Malala Yousufzai may have succeeded in disabling her for the time being; they have certainly crippled their own cause forever.

The attack by the Taliban was as unconscionable and inexplicable as the destruction by the Afghan Taliban of the gigantic statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001. That wanton act of desecration has since become a byword for religious intolerance, just as Malala’s victimisation will, as long as human memory holds, be regarded as a symbol of the cause of female empowerment through education.

Today, about nine and a half million children (half of them girls) obtain primary education in Pakistan. Only a third of their mothers are literate. Do the Taliban have enough bullets to silence all of them?

Every shade of public opinion in Pakistani society has joined the chorus in deploring what happened to Malala. And so they should. Yesterday, it was Rimsha and blasphemy; today it is Malala and female education; tomorrow it could be and might well be womanhood itself.

Someone should remind the Taliban of the verses of Sura An Nahl that castigated those fathers who, on siring a daughter, agonised over whether to ‘keep her with disgrace or bury her alive in the dust?’ When the verses were revealed, the issue was whether girls should be permitted the divine gift of life or not. The issue in this century is whether girls are to be allowed the equally divine gift of knowledge. It does not require another revelation to remind us that women are not a subspecies of the human race. They are half the reason, the indispensable half, why there is a human race at all.

Afghanistan, another name for the maelstrom out of which the Afghan Taliban emerged as a deadly vapour, has been in a state of conflict for almost a generation. From the fall of the Taliban until the year 2010-11, the United States has provided over $67bn in assistance to a population of 28 million Afghans. Out of that, $39bn has been spent to equip and train Afghan forces to protect the Afghans against themselves.

The overall cost to the Americans has been even higher. Over the decade of its involvement between FY2001 and FY2011, US intervention in Afghanistan has cost its taxpayers almost $450bn.

In the current year alone, $16bn in aid is being provided, in addition to about $90bn for US military operations. Another $9.2bn in aid has been requested for FY2013. And yet Afghanistan remains poor, ungovernable and comparatively illiterate. Paraphrasing what Sarojini Naidu once said of Mahatma Gandhi, it is costing the US a fortune to keep Afghanistan in a state of poverty.

If one ignores the bellicose rhetoric that attempts to justify the presence of the US and its allies in Afghanistan, one would realise that the militants could not have emerged or survived as a threat to a modern Muslim secularism without being supported by something other than belief and conviction. Shadowy powers with hands invisible to the audience manipulate the Afghans and the Taliban against each other.

For there to be a true closure to the Afghanistan/ Taliban problem, perhaps one should rely upon the experience of former British prime minister Tony Blair. He once suggested to his deputy (and later successor) Gordon Brown the electoral slogan ‘tough on crime’.

Gordon Brown sharpened its ending with ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. When a segment of rational society calls for strong action against the Taliban, they too could go one stage further and demand exposure of those governments and regimes which support them.

There will be as many opinions as there are voices on who exactly is funding the Taliban. Is it Pakistan’s ISI? If not, perhaps a rogue element within it? Is it Russia, determined to bleed the US in retribution for the blood it shed in the 1980s? Or are the Taliban sustaining themselves peddling their harvest of poppy seeds on international street-corners?

War is never cheap. The Vietnam War cost $738bn (in today’s dollar equivalent); the Iraq war another $784bn. How much education could that have bought? The bullet shot at Malala cost the same amount as her monthly school fees.

Malala’s sacrifice has demonstrated that the only counter to the militants is not a bullet. It is education. Even in Saudi Arabia, 58 per cent of college students are women. Almost 85 per cent of its female graduates are reabsorbed into education. Perversely, Saudi women may not be permitted by their government to drive cars in the kingdom, but they are trusted enough to be the drivers of the next generation of Saudis. Saudi Arabia knows, as every Muslim community must, that it cannot stifle female emancipation; all it can do is to postpone it.

That is equally true in Pakistan. Public opinion and time is on the side of girls like Malala. Malala Yousufzai may never again be the effervescent, outspoken young champion of her gender or of her generation. Cruelly, she may never be aware how her cause has galvanised her country out of its chauvinistic apathy. As a female student in Swat, she was all too vulnerable; as a potent symbol, she is indestructible.

The writer is an author.