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Fundamentalism versus education - a word-wide women's struggle

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Thursday, 8 November 2012

Malala Yousufzai, shot in the head on 9 October 2012 by a Taliban gunman, is reported to be 'doing well' at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, where she was flown after the attack. Her father says that now she is recovering, she will return to Pakistan. There, her family will continue to support her in her struggle for girls' equal access to education.

A native of Pakistan's Swat Valley, Malala Yousufzai is well-known beyond her home for speaking out against the Taliban's repressive actions in denying girls and women the right to live freely and, in particular, to be educated. Her campaign against this oppression has drawn attention to Taliban actions too often resulting in atrocities and death. Consequently, her injuries – including a shattered skull and potential brain damage – have been suffered at Taliban hands. Today she stands as a victim and survivor of fundamentalism, a rallying-point for Pakistani girls seeking what should be theirs, automatically – the right to knowledge through schooling.

Now fifteen, at nine Malala Yousufzai began writing a BBC blog. Under a pseudonym she described life under the Taliban. Despite threats, her media appearances, along with her public speaking from platforms and footpaths, in the marketplace and in village centres, met with an award of a high-level civilian honour for her courage.


Her refusal to be quiet, her determination to use her brain as a thinking organ and her capacity for speech as a reason to speak out, made her a Taliban target. This had consequences for her associates and beneficiaries. The gunman's sharp-shooting resulted in injuries not only to her, but to two other girls, all travelling in a school bus on their way home from classes. Although – or because – threatened by Malala Yousufzai's voice, the Taliban is unrepentant and undeterred. Now, the Taliban vows to complete the attack by killing her. In Birmingham, police officers are patrolling outside the Queen Elizabeth Hospital to maintain her security.

Although the possibility of Malala and her family seeking refuge in the United Kingdom as asylum seekers has been raised, Mr Yousufzai rejects this, saying: 'I first laughed at [the proposition] because all of our sacrifices, my personal [sacrifices], or this attack on my daughter, cannot have such a cheap purpose that we would go to some other country and live the rest of our life there.' The Pakistan government, through Interior Minister Rehman Malik, has said Malala Yousufzai and her family will be protected upon returning to Pakistan.

In the Taliban's eyes, Malala Yousufzai is 'fair game', because she has reached puberty. Accordingly, marriage is her sole purpose and she can have no life outside the home. Marriage and patriarchal silencing are her destiny. The doors of all educational institutions must be closed to her. So, too, must all and any access to or promotion of 'Western thought'.

Pakistan is not isolated in harbouring fundamentalists targetting women and girls' right to education. RAWA – the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan – has the right to education as a central tenet. Active in setting up schools, training and employing teachers, and directing funding and other resources to ensure that as many girls and women as possible in Afghanistan access knowledge through schooling, RAWA has suffered at the hands of fundamentalists, too. In 1987, some ten years after RAWA was established 'as an independent political/social organisation of Afghan women fighting for human rights and for social justice in Afghanistan', RAWA's leader, Meena, was assassinated. RAWA reports that in Quetta, Pakistan, Afghan agents employed by the KGB shot and killed her 'in connivance with [the] fundamentalist band of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar'. Despite her death, Meena's struggle for democratic and secular values in the governance of Afghanistan continues through RAWA's work in organising and educating women. Every RAWA member and beneficiary remains in the sights of fundamentalist groups operating in the region.

Yet the West is not immune from the diktat that education and women should not mix and, where they do, violent action is necessary.

In September 2006, gunman Duane R. Morrison, 53, of Denver, 'took six [teenage] girls hostage at a Colorado high school and killed one teenager as well as himself'. He aimed a shot at the floor, told the female students to line-up, and sexually assaulted some before killing 16-year-old Emily Keyes. These young women were his target: a male student said he and other male students were 'forced … to leave the … classroom':


'"You could tell that he wanted the females … He tapped me on the shoulder and told me to leave the room. I told him, 'I don't want to leave'." This student told NBC's Today show that he "wanted to stay to give support to the girls in the classroom", but was told to go or be shot.'

One month later, four female students – bound and shackled – were killed in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. Before tying up eleven students, shooting the four dead 'at close range' and, finally, turning the gun on himself, the shooter – in possession of three guns, a stun gun, two knives and 600 rounds of ammunition – sent the boys outside. Police Commissioner Miller said the perpetrator 'appeared to want to attack young female victims'. The seven surviving girls – 'most badly wounded' – had, together with their dead school-mates, been 'lined up along a chalkboard', ankles and wrists 'bound with wire and plastic ties'. Charles Carl Roberts, 32, a 'married father of three who drove a milk tanker truck' was identified by police as the gunman.

The United States is not alone. Canada features in the litany of attacks against female students. The 'Montreal Massacre' occurred on 6 December 1989. Fourteen women were killed at the Ecole Polytechnique in Quebec. In his suicide note, written before entering the School of Engineering armed with a Stum Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle, Marc Lepine blamed his refusal for admission to the college on 'affirmative action' policies 'promoted by feminists and their sympathisers'. His motive for the killings was expressed in this missive:

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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All articles by Jocelynne Scutt

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