I was in Kabul this past summer when the local radio station played a requested song. The heavenly sounds of a female voice singing in Pashto filled the living room. Our watchman Latif walked to the radio to increase the volume. While he was whispering the song's lyrics, his eyes became full of tears and sorrow. Half talking to me and half talking to himself he murmured, "She was like an nightingale ... they killed her... the Taliban killed her. They couldn't stand her voice and her beauty." Interestingly, Latif isn't Pashtun by ethnicity. He is a Tajik and Persian speaker but he adores good music and was the Pashtun singer's fan.
I looked up the assassinated singer's name, Ghazala Javed, online. She was killed two months earlier in June. When I saw photographs of her motionless corpse at the funeral home, my heart ached with grief. Her beautiful, large eyes closed like a butterfly's wings put together. She was only 24-years-old, beginning her promising career and now forced to lie in a cemetery. She committed an unforgiveable sin -- she exposed her voice to the public and advocated peace in her own troubled region, Swat Valley in Pakistan.
Ghazala and her family fled Swat Valley in 2009 to Peshawar (also in Pakistan) when the Taliban dominated northwestern Swat. They found a safe haven in Peshawar, and there her fame rose. She became a household name not only in Pakistan but also Persian Gulf countries and Afghanistan. In fact, she had been preparing for a concert in London when she was killed.
But her voice was not the only exceptional aspect of Ghazala. In 2010, when she learned that her husband had a secret wife, she asked the court for a divorce and surprisingly was granted it. In a society as conservative as that of Pakistan, a divorcée with a public life was tantamount to death. And indeed her days were numbered, for on June 19, 2012, the vehicle she and her father were traveling in was showered with bullets. Two men on motorbikes who fired at them fled and left Ghazala and her father in pool of blood.
Her songs mainly centered on peace, asking God to bring peace to her nation Pakistan. They are still available on YouTube where her grieving fans leave comments in her absence.
But the Taliban's attempt at the life of 14-year-old Malala Yousefzai, also from Swat Valley, on Tuesday shook not only Pakistan and the region, but also the world. On Tuesday, a masked man stopped a school bus in Swat and singled Malala among other students and shot her in the head and neck. A Taliban spokesman confirmed that Malala had been the target and called her "crusade for education rights an 'obscenity.'"
Far from New York and other major cities in Western countries, places in the world still exist where young girls are killed for a reason as simple as going to school. But this modest dream is a big fear for many women in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In places with virtually no rule of law outside that of tribal codes, and too remote for the government to control, criminals and misogynistic extremists thrive under the guise of Islamic Sharia law.
As a journalist, I have traveled to Afghanistan countless times and, except for being caught in crossfire, I never felt I was in immediate danger. But every visit to Pakistan I felt very unsafe. Journalists who cover the region know where the real threat is and some areas in Pakistan are more dangerous than Afghanistan.
What happened to Malala won't be the last attempt, no matter how many people condemn the Taliban's act or if the Pakistani government puts a 10 million rupee reward for information leading to the arrest of the gunmen who assaulted Malala. Politicians involved in Afghanistan know that the situation will be critical especially in terms of women's rights and human rights after the US departure in 2014. Afghan women are painfully aware that this very young democracy and the shaky freedom they have now would be jeopardized with the absence of U.S. troops. Such a shame that after a 12-year war on terror and extremism, basic rights for people like free and fair education for girls and boys can't be guaranteed.
Afghans would suffer fewer problems if Pakistani Taliban or fighters crossing the borders left Afghanistan alone. But the insurgency and extremism has been able to thrive precisely because of the safe havens provided in Pakistan. Leaving Afghanistan would be like leaving a garden to seasonal grasshoppers.
Ghazala and Malala are not the only ones gunned down in this region. The brutal Taliban killed many in the name of their horrific barbaric belief, which has no foundation in Islam. Many Afghan female journalists, who raised their voices in society and became advocates for peace and democracy, lost their lives in the past 11 years. Among them were TV presenters, radio broadcasters, actresses, and politicians -- all who wanted to make a difference in their society but instead were killed as a lesson for their followers. Recently in the city of Parwan, just four kilometers north of Kabul, the Taliban publicly executed a woman. Last July, a prominent female politician, Hanifa Safi, was killed in a bomb attack in Ghazni province. Ms. Safi was the provincial head of the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs and had for years been a leading advocate for the fair treatment for women.
Malala is still alive -- just as the hope for a better future for the women of this region is alive. Unconscious, she is desperately fighting with death while her attacker threatens to kill her if she survives. Malala had a dream and didn't give up her voice to her dream. She spoke out about her passion for education and became a symbol of defiance against Taliban subjugation.
What fate and religion can drive a man to justify killing a schoolgirl? My Afghan friend, a former member of the Mujaheddin and Northern Alliance, half-jokingly explained, "When they [the Taliban] can behead their enemies with a knife, killing with bullet is considered very soft treatment and thus preserved for women." Though the comment was said in jest, it made me wonder whether in Afghanistan post-2014, we journalists too would await a "soft" bullet treatment of sorts.
What about Swat Valley and other neighboring areas in Pakistan like Waziristan? Are they considered lost states? Peace and prosperity cannot be granted in Afghanistan before insurgency and extremism are rooted out in Pakistan. But what will become part of the history to achieving peace in the region -- the girl who symbolizes resistance and is fighting for her life in a hospital bed, or the Taliban?