ISLAMABAD/UNITEDNATIONS: Schools shut their doors in protest and Pakistanis across the country held vigils Wednesday to pray for a 14-year-old girl shot by a Taliban gunman after daring to advocate education for girls and criticize the militant group.
The shooting of Malala Yousufzai Tuesday in the town of Mingora in the volatile Swat Valley horrified Pakistanis across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum.
Many in the country hoped the attack and the outrage it has sparked will be a turning point in Pakistan’s long-running battle against the Taliban, which still enjoys considerable public support.
A Taliban gunman walked up to a bus taking children home from school and shot Malala in the head and neck. Another girl was also wounded.
Malala appeared to be out of immediate danger after doctors operated on her early Wednesday to remove a bullet lodged in her neck.
She remained in intensive care at a hospital in the city of Peshawar, and Pakistan’s interior minister said the next 48 hours would be crucial.
Small rallies and prayer sessions were held for her in Mingora, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.
In newspapers, on TV and in social media forums, Pakistanis voiced their disgust with the attack, and expressed their admiration for a girl who spoke out against the Taliban when few dared.
Even the country’s top military officer – a man who rarely makes public statements – condemned the shooting and visited the Peshawar hospital to check on the teenager.
“In attacking Malala, the terrorists have failed to grasp that she is not only an individual, but an icon of courage and hope who vindicates the great sacrifices that the people of Swat and the nation gave, for wresting the valley from the scourge of terrorism,” Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said in a statement.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the young Pakistani girl.
“She was attacked and shot by extremists who don’t want girls to have an education and don’t want girls to speak for themselves, and don’t want girls to become leaders,” she said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was outraged by the shooting, with his spokesman confirming that he will write to her family.
“Like so many others in Pakistan and around the world he’s truly outraged by this attack,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters.
“To show his support, he’s writing to the family of Malala Yousufzai.”
Ban later called for those responsible for “this heinous and cowardly act to be swiftly brought to justice.”
Malala is admired across Pakistan for exposing the Taliban’s atrocities and advocating girls’ education in the face of religious extremism.
At the age of 11, she began writing a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC about life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley. After the ousting of the militants in 2009, she began publicly speaking out about the need for girls’ education.
The group claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack and vowed to target her again.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said her attackers had identified but no arrests have been made.
Even with such an outpouring of grief and outrage in Pakistan over the shooting, it was unclear whether public opinion against the Taliban will change.
Many in Pakistan view the group as waging a noble fight against U.S. troops that invaded another Muslim country – Afghanistan – and they argue that the Taliban problem within Pakistan will fade once American forces leave.
They argue that Taliban attacks in Pakistan aim to punish Islamabad for its alliance with Washington.
“Pakistani society is polarized on who is doing terrorism,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore. He said that divide has been evident even in the public condemnations of the attack, with some people speaking out strongly against the Taliban while others criticize the government for failing to protect Malala.
Omar R. Quraishi, the editorial pages editor at Pakistan’s English-language Express Tribune newspaper, questioned whether the public outrage had reached such a critical mass that it would mark a turning point.
He said Kayani’s strong statement in support of the girl may be an attempt to gauge whether there is enough public outrage to support a sharp response from the army against the Taliban. The general, Quraishi said, doesn’t want people to start asking: “Why are you fighting America’s wars?”