British Pakistanis to Malala: You go, girl

Malala Yousufzai's arrival in the UK to receive treatment after being shot by the Taliban reminds that resistance to the education of girls remains an issue among pockets of the country's Pakistani community.

Alastair Grant/AP
Police officers patrol outside the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where Malala Yousufzai is being treated, in Birmingham, England, on Monday.

In Britain’s Muslim community, a large portion of whom are of Pakistani heritage, there has been keen interest in the case Malala Yousufzai, the schoolgirl shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban for advocating education for girls.

The attack has united many in her native country in outrage. Demonstrations and vigils have taken place in support of the teenager, who was airlifted Monday to Britain to receive specialized medical care and protection from follow-up attacks threatened by the militants.

Yet in Britain, too, campaigners for the empowerment of young Muslim women say the attack has struck a chord in parts of society where traditional attitudes, in particular those carried over from rural northern Pakistan, still manifest themselves through resistance – in a minority of families – toward education of girls.

“Malala is a role model because even though we are not facing the Taliban here in the UK, there are a number of girls who face that backward mentality. So I think definitely she has become an inspiration for standing up against force at such a young age,” says Sabbiyah Pervez, a young mother and university graduate in the northern English city of Bradford, home to one of Britain’s largest Muslim populations.

Ms. Pervez, who coordinates projects to empower young Muslim girls, stresses the major educational advances made by Britons from a South Asian community, such as the fact that many are excelling. But she says that some girls are still being pulled out of schooling at 16 because parents feel that if the girls get educated, they will challenge their parents.

“It’s to constrain and restrict them. I know a girl who was pulled out of school at 16 and she summed it up perfectly for me: ‘They have cut my wings to fight and fly,’ " she said.

A particularly harrowing case brought the spotlight on such attitudes earlier this year, when two British Pakistani parents were sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering their teenage daughter, Shafilea Ahmed, in 2003 because they believed she had brought shame on the family with her desire to lead a "Westernized" lifestyle. She had defied her parents' wishes for an arranged marriage in Pakistan to a much older man.

The case is cited by rights advocates as one that opened eyes and sparked debate, a process continued by Malala’s case.

At the same time, observers advise caution about allowing headlines and coverage of individual cases, such as that of Shafilea Ahmed, to obscure the broader trend of young British women from South Asian backgrounds furthering their education and being encouraged by their parents to do so.

In fact, the achievements of schoolboys from the same backgrounds are being eclipsed by their female peers, notes Claire Dwyer of University College London, who co-authored research based on interviews with young British Pakistani Muslim women about their career aspirations.

“In the context of men not being able to get work, what was particularly striking from many of the girls we spoke to was that they saw their education as being not just for themselves but in order to be breadwinners in the future,” Dr. Dwyer adds.

The findings suggested that British Pakistani working-class families with little experience of education support the greater opportunities for education and work for their daughters, and may even invest more in daughters, as girls outperform boys at school and the labor market is more receptive to female workers with "soft skills," like interpersonal abilities.

Meanwhile, farther south in Birmingham, where Malala is hospitalized, her arrival has engendered feelings of a different kind among Muslims living there. 

"There is a strong connection [between the two places] because of the large number of Pakistanis who live in the city, I am proud that Birmingham has stepped in to help this situation," Qayyum Choudhury, chairman of the Council of British Pakistanis, told the BBC.

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