Brave women of Pakistan, I salute you!
MINGORA, PAKISTAN—For one month the dreams kept coming. The voice, the shots, the blood. Her friend Malala slumped over.
Shazia Ramazan, 13, who was wounded by the same Taliban gunman who shot her friend Malala Yousafzai, returned home last week after a month in a hospital, where she had to relearn how to use her left arm and hand. Memories of the Taliban bullets that ripped into her remain, but she is welcoming the future.
“For a long time it seemed fear was in my heart. I couldn’t stop it,” she said. “But now I am not afraid,” she added, self-consciously rubbing her left hand where a bullet pierced straight through just below the thumb.
Now Shazia and her friend Kainat Riaz, who was also shot, return to school for the first time since the Oct. 8 attack when a Taliban gunman opened fire on Malala outside the Khushal School for Girls, wounding Shazia and Kainat in the frenzy of bullets.
The Taliban targeted Malala because of her outspoken and relentless objection to the group’s regressive interpretation of Islam that keeps women at home and bars girls from school.
Malala is still undergoing treatment and unable to come back. But among her friends in her hometown of Mingora in the idyllic Swat Valley, she is a hero.
“Malala was very brave and she was always friendly with everyone. We are proud of her,” said the 16-year-old Kainat, wrapped in a large purple shawl and sitting on a traditional rope bed. Her mother Manawar, a health worker, sat by her side, praised her daughter’s bravery and with a smile said: “She gets her courage from me.”
Although conservative and refusing to have her picture taken, Kainat’s mother slammed attacks on girls’ education and warned Pakistan will fail if girls are not educated.
Quick to laugh, Kainat — who comes from a long line of educators in her family — looked forward to returning to school. “I want to study. I am not afraid,” she said.
The authorities however are not taking any chances. Armed policemen have been deployed to both Shazia’s and Kainat’s home and will escort them both to school.
Kainat’s home is hidden behind high walls with 8- foot-high steel gates, tucked away in a neighbourhood of brown square cement buildings. A foul smelling sewer runs the length of the street where armed policemen patrol, eyeing everyone suspiciously.
Outside Shazia’s home, a policeman wearing a bulletproof vest sits on a plastic garden chair with a Kalashnikov resting across his knees. Three policemen patrol a nearby narrow street that is flanked by roaring open fires where vats of hot oil boil and sticky sweets are made and sold.
Shazia, who has ambitions to become an army doctor, is a stubborn teenager. She doesn’t want the police escort.
“They say I need the police. But I say I don’t need any police,” she said, pushing her glasses firmly back on her nose. “I don’t want the police to come with me to school because then I will stand out from the other students. But I shouldn’t.”
At their school, the students are quick to attack the Taliban and display a giant poster of Malala. The school, which has more than 500 students, only closed its doors briefly at the height of the Taliban’s hold on the region in 2008 and early 2009. It was then that Malala began to blog, recording her unhappiness with Taliban edicts ordering girls out of school.
Although she was barely 9 years old then, Shazia remembers those days.
“Times were very bad. Girls were hiding their books under their burqas. Compared to then, now is a very good time,” she said, her pink shawl covering her head. “We are strong.”
Both the army and the police are deployed outside the school, whose name means “happy,” and journalists were not permitted to pass its black iron gate until last week when an Associated Press reporter and photographer were allowed inside. Authorities feared drawing attention, but the students within seemed unconcerned, often offering words of support for Malala and saying they weren’t afraid to come to school.
Even the shiest among them would whisper in a friend’s ear to say: “Tell her I will not stop studying.”
Each morning the school principal gave the students a progress report on Malala’s condition.
“She is getting better every day and she asks about all of us and what we are doing,” said 15-year-old Mahnoor, one of Malala’s close friends. “When it happened we just cried and prayed. We weren’t worried for ourselves. We were just worried for her.”
Twelve-year-old Emar said of the Taliban: “They are thinking that she is a girl and she cannot do anything. They are thinking that only boys can do things. They are wrong. Girls can do anything.”
In a strong voice and speaking in English, Gulranga Ali, 17, said students have “gotten courage from her (Malala) and everyone is attending school. No one is staying home.” She said the attack has turned the country against extremists and “now every girl and child is saying ‘I want to be Malala.’”
Malala’s father says the family will return to Pakistan after his daughter is well enough.
But even her classmates worry for her safety.
“I don’t think she will come for education anymore in Swat. She will not be safe here. Now she is a celebrity,” said Gulranga.
There is also a deepening concern that Malala’s attacker has not been arrested, that the outrage her shooting generated throughout Pakistan has subsided without substantive changes and that fear will prevent real change.
Ahmed Saeed, a close friend of Malala’s father, said politicians and Pakistan’s military establishment still have to decide if they will support Malala’s worldview or that of the Taliban. Saeed said the teenager will have another operation in three months to reconstruct her skull but that she is talking and walking “and gossiping with her family.”
In what has been cheered as a first step toward compulsory education for both boys and girls in Pakistan, Parliament last week introduced legislation making it a crime to keep a child at home. Offending parents can be fined upward of $500.
Still, earlier this month the Taliban attacked a busload of girls returning from school in the tribal regions, throwing acid in their faces. In a statement, the Taliban accused the girls of embracing the West through education.
“I don’t know if this has changed Pakistan,” Shazia’s father said of the shooting. Still, he wants his daughter to continue at school.
“Now I want to be an example to other girls,” Shazia said. “They (Taliban) can’t stop us from going to school.”