Taliban gunmen have shot and seriously wounded a 14-year-old children’s rights activist who has campaigned for girls’ education in the Swat Valley in north-west Pakistan.
Malala Yousafzai was attacked on her way home from school in Mingora, the region’s main town.
She came to public attention in 2009 by writing a diary for BBC Urdu about life under Taliban militants who had taken control of the valley.
A Pakistani Taliban spokesman told the BBC they carried out the attack.
Ehsanullah Ehsan told the BBC Urdu and other news organisations that they attacked her because she was anti-Taliban and secular, adding that she would not be spared:
“She was pro-West, she was speaking against Taliban and she was calling President Obama her ideal leader,” Ehsan said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“She was young but she was promoting Western culture in Pashtun areas,” he said, referring the main ethnic group in northwest Pakistan and southern and eastern Afghanistan. Most members of the Taliban come from conservative Pashtun tribes.
The chilling attack on the young peace campaigner has been leading TV news bulletins here. Malala Yousafzai is one of the best-known schoolgirls in the country. Young as she is, she has dared to do what many others do not – publicly criticise the Taliban.
Malala’s confident, articulate campaign for girls’ education has won her admirers – and recognition – at home and abroad. She has appeared on national and international television, and spoken of her dream of a future Pakistan where education would prevail.
Even by the standards of blood-soaked Pakistan, there has been shock at the shooting. It has been condemned by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, who sent a helicopter to transfer Malala to hospital in Peshawar.
The head of Pakistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, Zohra Yusuf, said “this tragic attack on this courageous child sends a very disturbing message to all those working for women and girls.”
One report, citing local sources, says a bearded gunman stopped a car full of schoolgirls, and asked for Malala Yousafzai by name, before opening fire.
But a police official also told BBC Urdu that unidentified gunmen opened fire on the schoolgirls as they were about to board a van or bus.
She was hit in the head and, some reports say, in the neck area by a second bullet, but is now in hospital and is reportedly out of danger. Another girl who was with her at the time was also injured.
Malala Yousafzai was just 11 when she was writing her diary, two years after the Taliban took over the Swat Valley, and ordered girls’ schools to close.
In the diary, which she kept for the BBC’s Urdu service under a pen name, she exposed the suffering caused by the militants as they ruled.
She used the pen-name Gul Makai when writing the diary. Her identity only emerged after the Taliban were driven out of Swat and she later won a national award for bravery and was also nominated for an international children’s peace award.
Correspondents say she earned the admiration of many across Pakistan for her courage in speaking out about life under the brutal rule of Taliban militants.
One poignant entry reflects on the Taliban decree banning girls’ education: “Since today was the last day of our school, we decided to play in the playground a bit longer. I am of the view that the school will one day reopen but while leaving I looked at the building as if I would not come here again.”
She has since said that she wants to study law and enter politics when she grows up. “I dreamt of a country where education would prevail,” she said.
Taliban driven out
The BBC’s Orla Guerin in Islamabad says that Malala Yousafzai was a public figure who didn’t shy away from risks and had strong support from her parents for her activism. Indeed, her father, who is a school teacher, expressed his pride in her campaigning.
In a statement about the attack, Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf said: “We have to fight the mindset that is involved in this. We have to condemn it… Malala is like my daughter, and yours too. If that mindset prevails, then whose daughter would be safe?”
The Taliban, under the notorious militant cleric Maulana Fazlullah, took hold of the Swat Valley in late 2007 and remained in de facto control until they were driven out by Pakistani military forces during an offensive in 2009.
While in power they closed girls’ schools, promulgated Sharia law and introduced measures such as banning the playing of music in cars.
When the Taliban began asserting their influence in Swat in 2007 — part of a wave of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters expanding their reach from safe havens near the Afghan border — they began asserting their own brand of clerical fascism and barabarism.
They forced men to grow beards, restricted women from going to the bazaar, whipped women they considered immoral and beheaded opponents.
During the roughly two years of their rule, Taliban in the region destroyed around 200 schools. Most were girls’ institutions, though some prominent boys’ schools were struck as well.
At one point, the Taliban said they were halting female education, a move that echoed their militant brethren in neighboring Afghanistan who during their rule barred girls from attending school.
Since they were ejected, there have been isolated militant attacks in Swat but the region has largely remained stable and many of the thousands of people who fled during the Taliban years have returned.