Mahrukh has watched the shooting coverage on the hyperkinetic news channels. “In all the interviews I’ve seen, no one asks, Where was the army?” she points out acidly. Swat today is full of military and police checkpoints, part of the occupation that has been there since the army drove the Taliban out in 2009. By most estimates, the gunmen who tried to kill Malala, near the centre of town, passed through six checkposts to reach her bus, and as many again when they fled. How is it, Mahrukh asks, that no one noticed or stopped them?
The Malala incident, as they call it here, revealed to the rest of the country what people in Swat were well aware of, that the Taliban continued to operate there, not very far at all into the shadows, after they were supposedly driven out. And that, in turn, reignited the perpetual debate in Pakistan about the relationship between the military and the militants, between the intelligence agencies and the Taliban they helped create and financed and, some are sure, still covertly support.
Pakistanis were united in their revulsion about the shooting and their conviction that the Taliban had gone too far. But that unity dissipated within days – into speculation about conspiracies, about Malala’s relationship with the CIA, about why the rest of the world was giving this story so much attention.
There was, briefly, debate about a military operation against the Taliban in North Waziristan, along the border with Afghanistan – something the United States has been pushing Pakistan to do – but the army said it couldn’t act until there was consensus in government, and the right-wing parties refused that. Soon the usual fault lines and factions were clearly visible here again.
Aroosa and Mahrukh find all that a bit mystifying: How can anyone be sympathetic to the Taliban? The girls are acutely aware of how lucky they are, to have a family that could afford to move them out of Swat and send them to an English-language private school, which their father, Bakht, pays for with money he earns working in the United States.
And they know what the other options look like. They know a lot of girls back in the village whose fathers still think they belong at home, not school. “They’re living in the Stone Age,” Mahrukh says, rolling her eyes. Aroosa shudders a bit. “They think girls should just get married and have a bundle of children.” Mahrukh interrupts again: “My friend? Oh my god. She’s just my age and she’s getting married right now.”
In fact, there is considerable research to show that most Pakistanis now support education for girls, and the country has achieved improved gender parity in recent years – about 80 per cent of its girls are, at least on paper, enrolled in school.
But while Pakistan has schools in most villages and teachers in most schools, the quality of education remains, in the estimation of Shahida Khattak, a veteran educator, “abysmal.” Ms. Khattak is from Khyber-Pakhtunkwa – what used to be called “the tribal areas” in the northwest of Pakistan – and was hired in the 1980s to train a batch of teachers, to try to improve educational quality in both boys’ and girls’ schools. That project spread first across the province and later across much of the rest of the country until she was responsible for training thousands of teachers.
But there was no true government commitment to education, she said, only to doing the minimum needed to placate foreign donors and to use teaching jobs and school funds as political sweeteners. After more than 30 years in the trenches, Ms. Khattak despairs. “There is no shortage of teachers or schools now – but the schools are a very boring environment, the textbooks would be considered substandard in any country, there is no drinking water or toilets, children enroll on the first day and are counted but they don’t come back.”
Many Pakistani parents choose to send their boys to madrasas, Koranic schools, which are free. There are an estimated 22,000 madrasas registered with the government, and thousands more that are not official. The curriculum followed in most madrasas is about 800 years old – religious studies, with a sprinkling of history and science from the early days of the Islamic empire, and a large emphasis on jihad.
“Parents prefer it because it’s controlled – the madrasas feed their boys and teach them,” Ms. Khattak said. “Teach them what – that’s a question mark.”
Thinking about it, Aroosa flinches. She left school on Thursday, for the start of the Eid holiday, with instructions to read Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream (“It’s 402 pages!”) by Monday, and prepare a Power Point presentation for the class. Her sister needs to build a model of the pyramids at Giza, complete with little mummies. They informed their father that they would not be participating in much of the celebration; they have too much homework.