The Taliban has attacked over 800 schools in Pakistan since 2009. Attention on these attacks went mainstream after the Taliban shot Malala in the head last year and her speech at the UN this summer and recent contention for the Nobel Peace Prize have kept them in the spotlight ever since.
In 2008, the Taliban claimed that educating females is “un-Islamic” and threatened consequences for schools that continued co-ed education. There is clearly more to their oppression than strictly religious reasons. While the Taliban obviously wouldn’t state this themselves, their campaign against education, particularly against females, is an attempt to solidify their narrow interpretation of Islam by attacking a weak target and preventing empowerment of the population that would most benefit from their downfall.
A few days ago, the Taliban claimed that they “are not against female education” and that they shot Malala for her “anti-Islamic campaign.” Their dual claims that they don’t undermine female education and that they are upholding the tenants of Islam are both bogus.
In 2008, they issued a public declaration that schools would face “consequences” if they didn’t stop female education within the month and have since attacked over 800 schools, which means their words and actions both prove they are indeed against female education.
They additionally claimed that educating females is “un-Islamic,” suggesting that they were defending Islam by attacking schoolchildren. First, Islam is a peaceful religion that at no point condones attacking schools or children, under any circumstances. Second, according to one Hadith (saying or action by Muhammad), “Seeking knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim (male and female)." I’m not Muslim, so maybe I’m wrong here, but I would assume that if Muhammad preaches peace and feels knowledge is “obligatory” to every Muslim, destroying schools and preventing women from getting an education would be “un-Islamic,” not the other way around.
Furthermore, a 2009 Pew poll found that “87% of Pakistanis said it was equally important for girls and boys to be educated.” Taken all together, the Taliban cannot legitimately claim to be properly representing Islam, the Pakistani populace, or even their own policies. So then why do they continue attacking schools?
Historically, it is common for extremists to pick easy targets to demonize as the “enemy” in order to rally potential followers around a common cause. The best targets are those who can be attacked with little fear of retribution and those who are easy to repress. Extremists can count violence or persecution against these target groups as tangible victories in the name of “progress.” One of the most famous examples of this was Hitler “purging” Germany of Jews, invalids, gypsies, and other weak minority groups. His official reason was to “purify the Aryan race,” but they were really just easy groups to scapegoat and bolster his position politically. Other historical examples abound (e.g. Huguenot persecution in France, pogroms in Russia), though the violence in all of these cases was not only ineffectual in solving the economic problems causing the unrest, but detrimental to the development of the societies they affected.
It is difficult to think of an easier target than poor, rural, Pakistani schoolgirls. In pursuit of an extremely narrow view of Islam (and therefore local law), any attack on a school fostering female education could perversely be considered a victory; shooting a vocal, world-famous advocate for women’s rights and education could be considered a milestone. According to Pew, 13% of Pakistanis have favorable views of the Taliban, which means, though overwhelmingly unpopular, there are still supporters who might be impressed by extremist actions.
It is additionally difficult to think of anyone with more motivation to stop the Taliban’s agenda than repressed rural women, which is all the more motivation for the Taliban to impede their empowerment. According to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, Pakistan ranks right at the bottom in the world in estimated earned income for women, female participation as legislators, senior officials, and managers, enrollment in primary education, and dead last in labor force participation. The Taliban is certainly not entirely responsible for this extreme gender gap, but they would be among the first to lose traction if women had more money, better educations, and more of a voice in politics.
The Taliban’s claim that they are trying to preserve Islamic principles in rural Pakistan is ridiculous — they are simply trying to exploit a weak part of the population to make themselves look stronger, while simultaneously hindering that populace from getting into a position to do anything about it.
They fear education because it would undermine them.