Pakistani Girl Activist Wounded In Taliban Attack

In Pakistan, a 15-year-old girl is in the hospital with a bullet wound in her head. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the shooting. Malala Yousefzai has spent several years criticizing violent Islamist militants who do not want girls to have an education.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This week has brought one of the most disturbing images to emerge from years of conflict, in Pakistan. A 15-year-old girl lies in a hospital bed, with a bullet wound in her head. This is her punishment. She had the courage to demand the right for girls to get an education, and because she criticized violent Islamist militants who aim to stop girls, like her, from doing that. From Islamabad, NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You don't meet many kids like Malala Yousefzai. When she was barely in her teens, she was already being celebrated in Pakistan. News that she's been shot is causing deep anger and revulsion - even here, in a country where violent attacks happen every day.

About five years back, the Taliban took control of Malala's home city. They trashed schools, and ordered girls to stay at home. Using a pen name, Malala blogged about this for the Urdu Language Service of the British broadcaster, the BBC. She was only 11. You see, Malala's an unusually smart kid, says Afrasayib Khattak, a Pakistani politician and close family friend.

AFRASAYIB KHATTAK: She's bright, and she really understands the basics of problems faced by girls, young girls who are going to school. She was networking with individuals and organizations. So she, I think, is very impressive for her age.

REEVES: Malala lives in a city called Mingora, in Swat Valley. The valley was once a beautiful mountain resort that drew in tourists from all over the world. In 2009, the Pakistani army rolled in, to kick out the militants. Malala's hometown turned into a battlefield, on which both sides committed atrocities. The Taliban were driven out, though they never really went away.

NPR visited Malala's school shortly after it reopened. After months of war, girls were trickling back.

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REEVES: It's time for assembly. About 60 girls gather in a courtyard, under the hot morning sun, to go through their daily ritual of prayers...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Oh, my God, I offer you...

REEVES: ...verses from the Quran.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: ...and the Pakistani national anthem.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: Malala was there. She described what she and her classmates had been through.

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MALALA YOUSEFZAI: Sir, you know that in Swat there was Taliban and army. The Taliban were blasting schools. They have tortured us very much. They stopped us from going to school. They banned the girls' education.

REEVES: Malala was shot yesterday. She was in a van, traveling home from school with her classmates. The van was stopped by two young men with pistols, says school administrator Iqbal Hussain.

IQBAL HUSSAIN: (Through Translator) The driver tried to speed away, but one of the men got into the van. He asked which girl was Malala. Then he opened fire, injuring Malala and two other girls sitting beside her. Afterwards, the driver rushed to the hospital, with the girls in the van.

REEVES: The Taliban say they did this. Malala was promoting Western culture among the young, they say. They're threatening to attack her again, if she survives.Taliban threats are nothing new for Malala and her family. Her father, Ziauddin, is a prominent peace campaigner and an outspoken champion of girls' education. Last year, Malala won a prestigious peace prize in Pakistan and was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize, awarded by the Dutch KidsRights Foundation. That placed her firmly in the spotlight.

Afrasayib Khattak says her family were concerned for her safety.

KHATTAK: They were worried because the more her profile rose, the more she rose to prominence, the threat grew stronger.

REEVES: After the shooting, Malala was airlifted to a military hospital in the city of Peshawar. Surgeons spent three hours operating on her overnight. She has head and neck injuries. Her family's at her bedside. Khattak, again.

KHATTAK: They were extremely shocked. The family is around her. And everybody is praying for her. Everybody's thoughts are with her.

REEVES: Malala's case is about Pakistan's deepest fault line - the conflict between the many Pakistanis who do not embrace the values of the Islamist militants, and those who seek violently to enforce those values. The Taliban say they consider Malala to be obscene. Khattak uses similar words when he talks about them.

KHATTAK: They are criminals. They really do not belong to anything - no religion, no race. They are just brutes; agents of dark forces, agents of destruction and death.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.

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MONTAGNE: NPR spoke to Malala's father this morning. He says she's improving; she can move her hand.

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