These days the news from abroad is mostly grim. So it was inspiring last week to watch Malala Yousafzai — the Pakistani teen shot in the head by the Taliban because of her campaign for girls' education — standing erect on a U.N. podium on her 16th birthday. It was even more inspiring to hear her moving speech, delivered in a clear, confident voice, which called for free, compulsory schooling worldwide.
She recalled the October day when a talib jumped into her school van, aimed at her forehead point-blank and shot her and two fellow students.
"The Taliban ... thought that the bullets would silence us," she said. "But they failed." Malala — as she is now known around the world — was targeted because she had publicly denounced the Pakistani Taliban's violent campaign against girls' education in northwest Pakistan and the beautiful Swat Valley. More than 800schools in those regions have been attacked since 2009, and leading women's rights activists and teachers have been murdered. Only last month, 14 female students were blown up by a suicide bomber as their school bus traveled from their all-girls college campus in the city of Quetta, Baluchistan, near the Afghan border.
Yet the Taliban failed to kill Malala. Evacuated to England for medical treatment, she made a miraculous recovery. Wrapped in a pink head scarf that once belonged to another courageous woman, the murdered Pakistani premier Benazir Bhutto, she described why the Taliban are so hostile to girls' education.
"The extremists are afraid of books and pens," she said. "The power of education frightens them. ... The power of the voice of women frightens them. ...
"That is why they killed many female teachers and polio workers. ... That is why they are blasting schools every day. ... They are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society. ...
"One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world." With her outspoken courage, Malala has become a symbol of a U.N. campaign to assure that all children can attend primary school by 2015. The majority of those deprived of education are female. The bulk of these girls are in South and West Asia (including Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan) and sub-Saharan Africa.
In Malala's country, which has one of the worst education records in the world, two-thirds of the 5.1 million children who do not attend school are girls. Malala reminds us that religion and culture are no excuse for denying girls an education. As she noted, the Taliban are "misusing the name of Islam and Pashtun society." Nowhere in Islam is there any prohibition against girls' education. Taliban leaders (if not their foot soldiers) know this, but they fear the modernization of society that comes when women are educated.
Study after study has shown that to develop a middle-class society, a country must educate its women. Yet religious extremists charged Malala with being a Western agent because she wanted to go to school. Now that Malala has become a global icon, a senior Pakistani Taliban commander — perhaps more sensitive to the group's image — called the attack on her "shocking" and urged her to return home.
However, he also advised her to limit her studies to the Quran.
Malala's story should remind us that the barriers to education in poor countries often have less to do with poverty than with the cowardice of politicians, who are unwilling to challenge the extremists' claim that girls' education will bring Western "decadence." (Note that the radical Muslim group that has been attacking schools in northern Nigeria is called Boko Haram, which means "Western education is a sin.")