Aroosa Khan’s Grade 8 history class is studying the French Revolution, and her head is full of images of peasants storming the Bastille. She has been thinking about revolutions, about how even the most marginalized of people can stage them. Starving French peasants, for example. Or perhaps Pakistani girls.
“The peasants had a very difficult situation, but they didn’t give up,” Aroosa says in English. “They fought back, and got power. Girls can fight back and can get an education. A girl can bring a big change.”
She says this with ironclad conviction – and just a tiny hint of the condescension employed by 13-year-old girls the world over when explaining things to adults – and she is convincing. Aroosa has not the slightest doubt that she can do whatever she sets her mind to, be whatever she dreams. Her certainty is both the great hope for her country’s future and at painful odds with its uncertain present.
A few weeks ago, Taliban gunmen boarded a school bus in Mingora in the Swat Valley, Aroosa’s home, and shot another dark-browed, wide-eyed schoolgirl in the head. Fifteen-year-old Malala Yousufzai was targeted for her work championing the rights of girls to go to school. Pakistan’s politicians then lined up to declare Malala the pride of the country and to extol the value of educated, empowered girls. In a nation often bitterly divided, this seemed to be a conviction everyone but the Taliban shared.
But the chorus of support for sending girls to school drowned out some hard questions: Just what can a smart girl do in Pakistan? How much space can she claim? In a country this battered, fractured, dysfunctional – how much can she really hope to achieve?
Aroosa and Mahrukh know Malala Yousufzai: their cousin goes to her school – although like most of the other students, she is staying home, too afraid to attend – and the sisters lived near her in Swat until five years ago.
Then the Pakistani Taliban took over the area and ordered girls’ schools to close. Malala, who was 11, was shut up in her house and started the blog that turned her into a widely recognized campaigner for education. Aroosa and Mahrukh’s school tried to keep operating quietly, and the girls found themselves in a weird limbo, some days finding it open, some days closed – and sometimes passing by bodies strung up in the town square, victims of the Taliban’s swift justice for those who did not meet their standards of piety. The girls speak of it haltingly, like a bad dream they have mostly forgotten.
Their family decided, as did many others in Swat, that they had to flee after the Taliban takeover. They moved to a rented house here in the military headquarters town of Rawalpindi, which seemed secure and has good schools. They were part of a tide of Pakhtuns who have moved to cities in the south and east as the conflict has swelled in the border regions. The Khan family moved into a neighbourhood where the Punjabi locals looked at them suspiciously, as “uncivilized Pakhtuns,” in Aroosa’s scornful words – people from the frontier, with their guttural language and their women all wrapped up. They were homesick, Mahrukh says – they still are – for the sleepier life and the vivid colours in Swat.
But they went back to the valley often, for weddings and holidays like today’s Eid al-Adha holiday. They participated in a few special events at Malala’s school. They admired her renown but did not see anything startling in what she had to say. “I don’t know what was the problem with her, that you need to shoot her,” says Mahrukh, the younger, more hot-headed sister, who talks with her hands and brims with scorn for “stupid people,” like, say, the Taliban.
Over the past couple of years the girls grew used to city life, to the noise and the high-ceilinged concrete house; they loved their new schools and the family decided to stay in Rawalpindi even after the army drove the Taliban back out of Swat again. Aroosa and her sister did not often think of the militants who had forced them to move – until a couple of weeks ago when their older brother picked them up after school and told them the news about Malala being shot. Now they can’t stop thinking about that. They are safe, they think – the Taliban haven’t carried out attacks here or in nearby Islamabad in a while. But then, where are the Taliban, actually? And what can they get away with?