NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 35

The battle for girls’ education in Pakistan

Since the establishment of Pakistan in 1947, girls’ education has faced consistent challenges. Attacks on education for girls take various forms, including cultural and societal norms, gender discrimination, and religious extremism. It is important to note that Islam does not discriminate against women and emphasizes the significance of education for all Muslims.

Recently, the mainstream media reported a recent attack on a girls’ school in the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) territory. Unidentified assailants set fire to the Brogi Girls School in the Darel area of Gilgit-Baltistan and abducted the security guard. This attack was not an isolated incident, as previous attacks had already occurred in the area. In August 2018, a series of coordinated strikes resulted in the burning and bombing of at least 12 schools in GB’s Diamer area. Among the targeted schools were eight girls’ schools. Fortunately, no students were harmed as these incidents took place at night when the schools were closed. In some instances, books were thrown outside schools and set on fire.

According to reports from the area, a militant group distributed leaflets demanding the closure of girls’ schools. One of the leaflets stated, “We warn all tribal people to stop sending their grown-up girls to schools. We will not tolerate it.”

These attacks have had a devastating impact on girls’ education. A research report, citing the Global Terrorism Database and Pakistan’s Social and Living Standards Measurement, highlights that persistent exposure to terrorism significantly reduces the likelihood of parents continuing their children’s education, especially for girls. The report suggests that for every million people, an increase in terrorist incidents leads to 26,501 fewer children pursuing primary school education.

Gilgit-Baltistan has emerged as a new target for extremists, although the worst-affected regions in terms of girls’ education have been Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and tribal districts. Terrorists attacked a school van in the Swat district of KP, where extremist groups have been attempting to impose their anti-education agenda for nearly two decades. They have previously bombed schools, particularly those for girls, banned girls’ education, and launched attacks on students.

In the second week of October 2022, armed men on a motorcycle opened fire on a school van, killing the driver and injuring two children who were on their way to school in Swat. This district in KP is the hometown of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel laureate in history. The attack brought back memories of the attempted assassination of Malala in 2012 when she was only 14 years old. Malala was shot in the face by gunmen from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan as she returned home from school in a van.

In subsequent interviews, Malala stated that she was targeted because she continued her education, defying the ban on girls’ education imposed by the TTP in Swat. Despite surviving the attack, she has become a role model for young girls, not only in the Swat Valley but also across the world, advocating for the protection of women’s rights.

Official data reveals that extremists destroyed over 100 girls’ schools in the region from 2007 to 2009. Their destructive campaign was halted when the Pakistan Army launched various operations in the region to eliminate the enemies of the state and protect girls’ education.

Many people in Pakistan, as well as in Western countries, wonder why militants view education as their enemy, especially education for girls. Shenila Khoja-Moolji, a researcher, provides insight into this issue in a report published in the Washington Post. As an expert in gender and education with a focus on South Asia, she explains that historically, girls’ education has been used to classify populations as civilized/uncivilized and modern/backward. This has particularly been the case concerning Muslims.

During British colonial rule, the “uneducated Muslim” and the “secluded Muslim woman” were often depicted to legitimize the authority of colonial officers and establish the superiority of Western cultural values. Local practices such as purdah (veiling) and early marriage were frequently highlighted to portray Indian Muslims as degraded. This narrative served well within missionary and rescue narratives.

Furthermore, historians have argued that British women often utilized the plight of Indian women to advance their social positions in Britain and gain employment opportunities in India. These dynamics perpetuated the portrayal of Indian Muslim women as silent victims in need of rescue. Although in a different form, these narratives continue to the present day, as observed in the representation of Malala Yousafzai in the West. She is often portrayed as the girl who defied Pakistani culture and embodies a transnational, secular modernity focused on independence, choice, freedom, and gender equality.

The researcher expresses concern that instead of being seen as a symbol of Muslim and Pakistani courage in standing up against local violence, Malala is presented as an exception. This narrative sustains the perception of Islam as an oppressive religion and Muslims as trapped in pre-modern sensibilities. However, such formulations not only reinforce the victim/heroine binary but also overlook the complex web of issues such as state corruption, a weakened welfare system, and limited job opportunities.

To address this situation, the researcher suggests that we critically examine the debate on girls’ education and challenge the dominant Western perspective, which renders it a potent site for extremists. By recognizing the long-standing traditions of learning indigenous to Muslims and Pakistan, as well as supporting organizations such as the Aga Khan Development Network, which are grounded in Muslim ethics and seek to improve the quality of life in Pakistan and beyond, we can work towards both goals.


The writer is a physician by profession. She has worked as an intern at the Capital Health (New Jersey) & the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital (New York). Rights and gender issues are the areas of special interest to her. She can be reached at: [email protected]