Bakht is a doctor, a specialist who currently practises in the United States and keeps his children (the girls have two brothers), his parents and his brother’s family housed and all the kids in private school.
His family members were religious leaders but not educated, and far from wealthy or elite. His own father could read a little bit of Urdu; his mother, none at all. There were no schools for his sisters to go to in their village in Swat, so only Bakht and his brother were educated; he seems to find it hard to believe, looking back.
His wife, Zenat, faced the same problem: the doctor’s wife, the mother of these cracklingly intelligent girls, has no education herself. “I wanted to go to school so much,” she said. “Even now I’m dreaming of going.” But there were no schools.
And today Zenat – careworn beyond her 34 years – looks at her bold, chattering daughters and they seem a bit like aliens. Aroosa is sympathetic: “I think sometimes our mother thinks that she can’t tell us things because we know more than she does – but your mother is always your mother.”
Yet Zenat confides – with Aroosa translating her Pakhto because she knows no English or Urdu – that she is essentially a bit terrified of the girls. “I don’t tell them what to do, because I’m afraid they will disagree with me, and tell me they know better.” The girls love her, but in an unthinking sort of way: Already, her ability to be a force in their lives is dwindling.
She settles for nagging them to study, and expressing her belief in their abilities. “Whatever they want, they should set that goal and achieve it.”
But what, in fact, can they do? Lost in the hysteria over Malala and her fight were some hard questions about the options that exist for young women with an education. Unemployment, officially estimated at 6 per cent, is in truth more like three times that, and particularly high among the bulge of new graduates. Pakistan’s economy is in tatters, with manufacturing and industry hamstrung by a critical lack of power generation and investment scared off by the uncertain politics.
And young women face particular challenges – Nighat Khan, dean of the Institute of Women’s Studies in Lahore, points out that women outnumber men in every professional graduate program at Pakistan’s universities, and yet have a minimal presence in the workforce. Culturally they must take responsibility for domestic affairs, must stay home with children, and can’t take any job – such as an emergency-room doctor – that involves the need to travel after dark. Wealthy women can buy their way out of some of these problems and restrictions – that’s how Pakistan came to have a female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and its current Foreign Minister, the glamorous Hina Rabbani Khar – and urban women have some career choices. But rural women – that is to say, two-thirds of women – can be teachers, or “lady health workers” (primary-care aides) – and that concludes their options.
Aroosa and Mahrukh will not entertain this idea. But how far in the face of their culture can they fly? How much will it change in the next 10 years – and will it be change for the worse if the slow, shadowy rise of the extremists goes unchecked? These girls believe they can do anything. So did Malala.
Aroosa says that the change that comes with education starts at home, with changing a family’s ideas. “It’s good when you know about the entire world. You get a lesson, a picture of the world – you can see bigger things than just where you are in your head.” If more people asked critical questions, there would be less space for the Taliban. “If I can think, I can oppose them and we can fight them.”
Mahrukh says she wants to be a doctor, but then confesses she admires Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. “She played that game of politics very well.” Mahrukh is entranced by the idea of being famous like that. “Everyone has to go from this world, why not be famous? Why not make a name and leave your name on people’s lips?”
The Taliban, she says, shot Malala “because they think girls have no right to be the strongest. America is the strongest country because its women are the strongest and they don’t want us to have that power.”
Aroosa, no less angry, nevertheless can manage a bit of magnanimity. “And we pray that they get some sense and realize it’s not a bad thing to get your country developed.”