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Category: Education, Girls, International

Pakistan’s Little Rock Nine

| August 6, 2009

Protecting schoolgirls forced to face down the Taliban mob in the Swat valley—education is the place to start, writes the author, toward an equitable and secure future.

As schools reopen amid rubble and fear in the Swat valley, Pakistan, I am reminded of the battle lines 52 years ago when President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the Supreme Court's 1954 decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education. The troops were to face down mobs of white supremacists, and escort black students to white schools, eventually disabling a system of apartheid, starting with education. Public school is where Americans learnt to put aside differences and prejudices and where progress in generational terms took place.

Today a black man, Barack Hussein Obama, a product of this country's best educational institutions, is president of the United States, and as president of the global superpower faces an equivalent civil rights challenge half way around the world.  In the mountains of the Swat valley, Pakistan, the United States and its ally Pakistan face down another angry, prejudiced and well-armed mob—the Taliban—this time to enforce the right of girls to go to school. Indirectly it is a battle to protect all women's rights enshrined under the Pakistan Constitution and United Nation's treaties of which both nations are parties.

The Taliban, a term loosely applied to Islamist militias from the mountain regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are the same militants that defeated the Soviet Union as Cold War allies of the United States. They derive their misogynist Wahhabi ideology from our other ally, Saudi Arabia, and have now turned their guns on the United States, NATO and the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taliban militias have proven to be a resilient force, adept at smuggling weapons and opium with deregulated support from mosques and madrassas across the region.

In January this year feminists around the world sounded alarms as the Taliban overran the Swat valley, a middle class tourist haven, blew up 200 girls schools, threatened any teachers or girls who dared attend schools, beheaded detractors, and enforced their version of Islamic law on men and women. "The Taliban have been growing for a decade, with either neglect or encouragement by various governments, ending with this shameful Nizam-e-Adl in 2009," accuses Afzal Khan Lala, referring to the law’s enactment. Khan Lala, who lost two grandsons to fighting the Taliban, was the sole holdout among senior politicians from Swat.

Founded on the basis of religion, Pakistan has been on the horns of a dilemma since its independence in 1947—how Islamic it should be and whether it can balance the interpretations of the varied sects of Islam, the rights of women and its non-Muslim minorities in its Constitution and government. It took till 1973 for all political parties, including the Islamists, to accept a Constitution. It was a progressive consensus and the landmark achievement of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. However, the Pakistan constitution has been regularly tampered with by civilian and military governments alike and suspended by decades of military rule.  Bhutto himself was hanged by a military general; his daughter Benazir, the Muslim world's first women head of government, assassinated allegedly by the Taliban under another military ruler.

In a remarkable twist, today the Pakistan military finds itself fighting under the command of an elected government, in defense of liberal values against its own formerly allied Islamists—two sets of men in uniform: secular khakis vs. bearded zealots battling each other on the ground and the airwaves for the soul of the nation. Swat has become the defining symbol of Pakistan's own civil war. One hundred miles from Islamabad, its takeover by the Taliban symbolized in the videotaped flogging of a teenage girl by militants roused the entire country to demand action by the troops stationed and stationary for the last two years in Mingora, Swat. Citizens marched in street protests, sent e-mail petitions, and joined Facebook fund-raisers for the millions of Swat refugees fleeing the military operation.

The war in Swat is still smoldering; only 10 percent of the students have attended the first week of school; majority of schools are still closed or to be rebuilt.  Much of the Taliban leadership remains at large, although clearly identifiable as they are giving media interviews by mobile phone.   The Pakistan government must use superior force and technology to find them, jam their websites and their terrorizing FM radios and then  sustain the political will to arrest and prosecute the Taliban under the Pakistan penal code.  The United States must help Pakistan financially and technologically in this operation.

As the Obama Administration and the donor Friends of Pakistan group meet on August 25, 2009 in Turkey to review Pakistan's aid package—including support for the Malakand/Swat division—the key benchmarks of progress are not the numbers of Taliban dead but the numbers of girls, and boys, returning to schools.  The Pakistan state must provide visible and sustained security to Swat's school children—they are Pakistan's Little Rock Nine.