A student holds an image of Malala Yousufzai, who was shot by the Taliban during a rally.

A student holds an image of Malala Yousufzai, who was shot by the Taliban during a rally. Photo: Reuters

Given that the Taliban is in the midst of what they claim is a ‘holy war’ against both the US and their own government, it may seem baffling that they would continue to spend time threatening teenage girls.

Two weeks after they shot schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in the head (along with two of her classmates) the Pakistani Taliban has threatened to do the same to another schoolgirl and vocal advocate of girl’s education, Hina Khan.

Hina had the terrifying experience of coming home to find a big red ‘X’ painted on her front door. Her family scrubbed it off only for it to reappear the next day. Her mother also received a phone call warning that, "Hina will be the next Malala."

Just days after Malala’s shooting, the Taliban tried to blame the teenager for her own attack, claiming, "We did not attack her for raising voice for education. We targeted her for opposing mujahideen (holy warriors) and their war."

This is a poor smokescreen for their real motivations. The Taliban is determined to silence girls like Malala and Hina because they are well aware that it is not the might of the US military that will be their undoing.

It’s educated women and girls.

For years the Taliban, both in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan, has been waging a violent campaign against girls’ education. Yousafzai first attracted their ire at the age of 11 when she penned a blog for BBC Urdu in which she described life in the tribal regions of Pakistan, detailing Taliban atrocities as they burned girls schools to the ground. 

This year alone, there have been 96 reported attacks on girls’ schools in Pakistan. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Education reports that due to relentless attacks including poisoning and throwing acid in the faces of girls who dare to attend school, the Taliban has succeeded in shutting down 550 schools. 

Sakeena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIF), has been engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse with the group since the 1990s when, with Afghanistan under Taliban rule, she set up 80 secret girls schools. When things got too heated she moved to Pakistan where she continued teaching the daughters of Afghan refugees.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, she returned to continue her work in Afghanistan and, although she now operates more freely, is still wary. "Every day there is a death threat…I’m always changing cars, changing bodyguards," Yacoobi told journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their bestselling book Half the Sky, a remarkable book which documents the human rights abuses suffered by women and girls around the globe, and - more importantly - how these women are using education to fight back. 

The old African proverb, 'Educate a man and you educate an individual, educate a woman, and you educate the whole village’, now has scientific backing. Without fail, research shows that educating women is the key to both social and economic progress prompting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to declare to the UN, ‘women’s progress is human progress.’ 

How does education benefit women and society? Let us count just some of the ways:

  • Educating women dramatically decreases infant and maternal mortality. 

  • Educated women are more likely to enter the labour force, increasing family income.

  • Educated women are more likely to invest in their family’s health and education, which decreases poverty and benefits economic progress.

  • Education gives women options, including a life outside the home. Increased financial independence leads women to delay marriage and pregnancy, as well as have fewer children (which again reduces poverty).

  • Education leads women to challenge their traditionally inferior status, which directly combats gender inequality. They are less likely to accept patriarchal gender norms such child marriages and cultural practices that discriminate against girls. A Guttmacher study, for example, found that each year of education a Sudanese woman receives reduces the likelihood of her favouring the continuation of female circumcision. 

  • Education decreases religious extremism. Even within the context of Islam, women benefit from education, which favours more liberal interpretations of the religion’s holy book. As well as educating women in their legal rights under civil and Islamic law, Sakeena Yacoobi instructs women in the Koran, deliberately emphasising verses that call for respect towards women. She then encourages women to share these verses with their husbands (many of whom are also uneducated). More often than not, both men and women are surprised to discover that such verses exist.

This, says Yacoobi, is precisely why the Taliban is so determined to shut down girl’s schools permanently. "They are afraid that women will ask questions, will speak up."

The Taliban cannot exist in a society where the female population demand independence and equality. Its model is built on male supremacy and traditional tribal loyalty, both of which female education directly challenges. Knowing that their influence and hardline interpretation of Islam hinges on a frightened and powerless population, the Taliban will stop at nothing to prevent even the smallest modicum of social and economic progress that education brings. Including killing teenage schoolgirls.

And what can we in the West do to help these women? Again, I yield Yacoobi’s wisdom,

"If we took the foreign aid that goes to guns and weapons and just took one quarter of that, and put it into education, that would completely transform this country…The international community should focus on education. On behalf of the women and children…I beg you! If we are to overcome terrorism and violence, we need education. That is the only way we can win."