The horrible, near-fatal shooting of a young Pakistani schoolgirl, reportedly by members of the Taliban, has focused world attention on the conflict between the armed Islamic group and Pakistani advocates of education for women. Malala Yousafzai, 14 years old, was shot in the head and neck while on a school bus, according to her classmates. She has been flown to Britain to receive medical attention for severe damage to her skull.
The daughter of a teacher, Yousafzai has been an outspoken advocate of schooling for girls since she was only 11, producing a blog and giving many interviews. She has gained worldwide attention and praise, especially from Western politicians and public figures. This is reportedly why she was singled out for attack.
Her family lives in the Swat valley area of Pakistan, a beautiful mountainous area that attracts many tourists. However, most of the people living there are very poor. Many sympathize with the Taliban, which has been resisting foreign intervention in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Until very recently, the Swat valley had a higher rate of literacy than the rest of Pakistan and there were many schools for girls. What has happened there to strengthen the influence of the Taliban, which takes an extremely reactionary position on women’s rights?
Factors behind Taliban’s influence
The poor people of the Swat valley in particular have suffered greatly in recent years.
In 2009, the Pentagon, fighting a full-scale war against the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, pushed the Pakistani Army to carry out an offensive against the Taliban in the Swat valley that resulted in the displacement of 2 million residents. Many wealthy Pakistanis moved out of the valley temporarily while the fighting was going on, leaving the poor to suffer the brunt of it. (Guardian, May 11, 2011)
Farmers in the valley were among the 3.5 million Pakistanis who had already been made homeless by a disastrous earthquake in 2005.
Then, in 2010, the worst floods in history swept through the river valleys of the northwest, causing more than a thousand deaths and widespread homelessness. The pain of those suffering turned to anger when government assistance failed to arrive.
“The anger of the flood victims poses a danger to the already struggling government, now competing with Islamist movements to deliver aid in a region with strong Taliban influence,” CBS News reported on Aug. 3, 2010. Thus, even after being targeted by a major military campaign just a year earlier, the Taliban were strong enough to provide assistance to flood victims who had received nothing from the government, thus earning them greater popularity.
Meanwhile, the U.S. had begun targeting the valley for its drone attacks on suspected members of the Taliban. The pilotless planes carried out devastating missile strikes on what often turned out to be family gatherings — weddings, birthday celebrations — killing children, women and men.
All these factors — the natural disasters, the U.S. war in Afghanistan and its impact on Pakistan, the government corruption that is so glaring when citizens are homeless and starving while relief funds fail to materialize — have combined to actually strengthen the political influence of a movement that is socially reactionary but is also self-sacrificing and relentless in its resistance to foreign domination.
‘Stop imperialist intervention’
The Pakistani bourgeoisie and military have long been important allies of U.S.-Anglo imperialism. For decades during the Cold War, the military ruled Pakistan outright, receiving billions of dollars in U.S. aid while crushing any opposition, especially from the left and the working class.
In neighboring Afghanistan, however, a leftist revolution in 1978 brought to power a secular, democratic government that attempted to institute land reform, canceled the debts of the peasants, and championed women’s rights, ending the bride-price and opening up schools and medical care to all. One of its leaders was Anahita Ratebzad, a Marxist and founder of the Democratic Organization of Women of Afghanistan.
After the revolution, women became 70 percent of the teachers, 50 percent of the civil servants and 40 percent of the doctors in Kabul. (Journal of the American Medical Association, 1998)
What happened to this great achievement for women? The Carter administration, reeling from the revolution in Iran that toppled the Western-backed Shah and also closed a strategic U.S. base there, began looking for other countries in the region from which to launch its high-altitude spy planes over the Soviet Union. It settled on Afghanistan. The CIA spent billions of dollars pulling together a counter-revolutionary army that launched a clandestine war against the progressive regime, which then had to turn to the Soviets for support.
In the long war that followed, the U.S. bankrolled, armed and trained the most reactionary, anti-woman, pro-landlord forces in Afghanistan in order to bring down the leftist government, overturn its many reforms and use the country as a military base in the region.
Among those on the CIA’s payroll were Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. No one disputes this.
It is not the imperialist West that is going to rescue young women like Malala Yousafzai from oppression. And it is not Islam, even in its fundamentalist form, that is responsible for her shooting.
Neighboring Iran, an Islamic state, today has the highest female-to-male ratio of primary school students in the world, according to UNESCO. And women make up more than 60 percent of Iran’s university students. Yet it is under Western sanctions and war threats because of the popular 1979 revolution that broke the neocolonial grip of U.S. and British oil companies.
To support the women of Pakistan and Afghanistan, we must demand: U.S. out! No war, no drone attacks — stop imperialist intervention! n