Pakistani security personnel stand guard in front of a burnt-out school following an attack by the Pakistani Taliban in the northwestern district of Upper Dir in June 2011. The Taliban have destroyed many schools in northwestern Pakistan.
Pakistani security personnel stand guard in front of a burnt-out school following an attack by the Pakistani Taliban in the northwestern district of Upper Dir in June 2011. The Taliban have destroyed many schools in northwestern Pakistan. AFP/Getty Images
Stop someone in the street. Ask them about the case of Malala Yousafzai. They will likely know — after the worldwide publicity given to her story — that Malala is the Pakistani teenager who was shot for demanding the right of girls to go to school.
They will surely know, too, that the people who shot Malala in the head from close range were the Pakistani Taliban. They will probably view Malala as the heroine she clearly is. And the Taliban will be seen as the violent fanatics that they surely are.
That will likely be all that person in the street knows. For most of us, Malala's case neatly, nastily, encapsulates the threat posed by violent Islamist militancy to a multitude of girls in Pakistan in their quest for education. Missing from that narrative, though, are many other complex obstacles that also block their path to the classroom.
To understand those, it is worth sitting down for a conversation with a girl called Huma Khan.
Huma is no celebrity. In fact, she is just an ordinary bright-eyed kid, no different from many, many million others in this part of the world. Yet she has much in common with Malala: She is 15 years old, and an ethnic Pashtun.
Like Malala, her family originates from northwestern Pakistan, an area where tradition runs deep, and whose people — overwhelmingly Pashtuns — tend to practice a profoundly conservative form of Islam.
And, again like Malala, Huma is hugely enthusiastic about going to school: "I really want to get more education," she says, perching on the edge of her wooden chair. "I want to become something. I want to be self-reliant."
Yet "becoming something" for a Pakistani girl, trapped by poverty and strict religious codes, is a truly daunting challenge.
High Hopes, And Barriers
I meet Huma at her home, in the tiny front room with peeling paint. She is wearing a light blue shawl and a bright smile. She is small for her years, but confident and very articulate. A Pashtun teenage girl would usually never speak with an adult male stranger unsupervised, let alone a Westerner; Huma's father is in the room, listening to our conversation.
Huma's eyes light up as she lists her favorite subjects: English, math, Islam, Urdu, Arabic, home economics, social studies.
Then her face clouds over; she explains that soon she will not be able to take those lessons anymore. In fact, soon she will not be going to school at all.
Her father is a wiry-looking, amiable, middle-aged man called Wasil. He makes bricks for a living. He has no education and regrets this. Years ago, he persuaded his family to agree that Huma should be given some schooling.
"I want her to be in a position to look after herself and to have some sort of awareness," he says.
It has not been easy for him to send Huma to school. Pakistan is in the grips of an economic crisis. In the past few years, Wasil's salary has shrunk by about one-third, to the equivalent of just under $100 a month.
Lack Of Support
The government-run schools in his neighborhood — as in many parts of Pakistan — barely function. Teachers frequently fail to turn up for work.
Pakistan's government has a dismal record in this area. It has reduced its education budget to less than 2.3 percent of GDP. According to a UNESCO report, released last week, only nine low- to middle-income countries spend a smaller slice of their budget on education than that. Pakistan also has the second-largest number of out-of-school girls in the world, the report said.
Wasil felt he had no choice but to send Huma to a private school.
Her school is basic: It has no library, no computers, no safe drinking water, and — thanks to daily power outages in Pakistan — often no electricity.
But Huma is learning a lot. She seems to appreciate that.
"I am really very fortunate to have such parents," she says. "In our village, many girls are not allowed to get education at all."
In March, Huma will be pulled out of school. Her family is planning to send her to study Islam in a madrassa. There will be no fees there.
Wasil would like Huma to have more education, but he cannot afford it, he says. Yet he concedes that if Huma's younger brother eventually wants to go to a university, the family will find the funds.
Another big issue is in play here. In traditional Pashtun culture, the extended family plays a dominant role. Girls' education is viewed with suspicion; women are expected to remain in the home.
Huma is in 10th grade. Wasil believes if she advances to a higher grade than that, there will be problems within the family.
"The problem of the extended family is that if we give more education to our girls, then we might not receive any marriage proposals for them," he says. "We almost always marry within the extended family."
Huma dreams of one day running her own girls' school, or perhaps becoming a doctor. She is not at all happy about having to leave school.
"I have been studying and learning since I was 5 years old. Books and studies are my friends. So I really feel very bad, thinking that I am going to lose that," she says.
In Huma's world, it is very difficult for a girl to challenge decisions made by her elders.
She believes that if she argues with them, it might bring shame on her parents. If they were to change their minds and let her stay on in school, they would be seen as weak.
"Other relatives in our extended family will ridicule my parents," she says. "I do not want our parents to be insulted because of me."
Two weeks have elapsed since Malala was shot. Like most Pakistanis, Huma was horrified: "I think it's a very bad thing. The Taliban have done a gross injustice to her by trying to eliminate her," she says.
For Huma, Malala stands for a cause that could hardly be more relevant to her own life.
"The message that Malala is giving to us says that we should fight for our rights and raise our voices for education," she says. "Do something and become something, for your country and for your family."
Huma is learning firsthand how hard it is to fulfill those goals.
Yet she has not lost heart.
Huma hopes the global outcry over the attack on Malala will change the outlook of the people who run her troubled world, and that they will ensure all the girls like Malala, like herself, can go to school — and stay there.
Due to safety concerns for the schoolgirl and her family, NPR will not be taking reader comments on this story.