Benazir Bhutto was a Pakistani politician who served as prime minister of Pakistan from 1988-1990 and again from 1993-1996. She was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation. Ideologically liberal, and a secularist, she was a controversial figure in Pakistan, feared and revered in equal measure for her modernising views and charismatic leadership.
Bhutto’s political life is far too complex to do justice to in just a few minutes, dogged as it was by controversy and accusations of bribery, nepotism and corruption; Bhutto was ousted from power through a rigged election. After a period of time in opposition, she came to power again. Although her efforts at reform and liberalisation were thwarted, her name was synonymous with democracy and she became a global icon of women’s rights. Bhutto was respected in the west as a stateswoman of global reach and significance.
After losing elections in 1997 and 1998, Bhutto went into self-exile in Dubai from whence she continued to lead her party through proxies. She returned to Pakistan in 2007 to contest the 2008 elections. She knew well her return to Pakistan put her own life at risk. Bhutto was assassinated in a suicide bomb attack in Rawalpindi. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, although the Pakistani Taliban were widely suspected as being behind the attack that ended her life at the age of 54.
Spool forward half a decade. On the 9th October 2012, Malala Yousafsai was climbing onto a bus in Taliban-ruled North Western Pakistan. She was 14 years old. As she boarded the bus, a gunman appeared, asked for her by name, and shot her in the head. She was left for dead. Miraculously, however, Malala survived the attack. She and her family were flown over to the UK and settled in Birmingham. The reason for the attack, for which the hard-line Taliban claimed responsibility, was an open diary that Malala has been writing and publishing, under a pen name, arguing and campaigning for the rights of women and, in particular, for the right for girls to receive an education.
The story of her recovery – from delicate surgery at a Pakistani military hospital to further operations and rehabilitation in the UK, was widely covered in the media. Malala was discharged from hospital in January 2013 and her life now is unimaginably different to anything she may have envisaged when she was an anonymous voice chronicling the fears of schoolgirls under the shadow of the Taliban.
Malala has become an international symbol for, and advocate of, the fight to improve girls’ literacy around the world. She is iconic of the power of human will to overcome brutality and marginalisation. In 2014, Malala became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. This year she was made the youngest ever UN Messenger of Peace.
Earlier this week, exactly 5 years to the day that she was shot, Malala began a course in PPE at Oxford University. She is at Lady Margaret Hall, the same college that Benazir Bhutto had attended, and following the very same course. In Bhutto’s day it was an all-women college (as it was when my mother was there); in Malala’s, it is a mixed college (as it was when I was at the same college): co-education has become very much the norm in our part of the world.
Indeed, we live in a part of the world where the idea of equal access to education is taken as read; a given. Lucky us. The world still has a long way to go, even in our supposedly enlightened times, before we have a society where girls and women enjoy equality and fairness.
A BBC article published on 10th October listed the 10 toughest places in the world for girls’ education. 9 of the 10 countries listed are in Africa. In the Central African Republic there is one teacher for every 80 pupil; in Niger only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate. Only 1 in a 100 girls Burkina Faso completes secondary school. In Ethiopia, over 40% of girls are married before the age of 18 – this applies across all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Yesterday (11th October) was international day of the girl. And with over 130 million girls still out of school, the global campaign for the right of access to schooling and education for girls is as urgent as ever. Icons such as Malala, following in the footsteps of her own hero Benazir Bhutto, can influence and draw attention to the host of issues that affect girls and women across the world: poverty, disempowerment, lack of education, sexual and physical abuse.
Who knows what things Malala will go on to achieve in her life? Because she has been exceptionally brave; because she has been exceptionally fortunate to escape an attempt on her life; because she is using her extraordinary voice to change the world; and because she knows the liberating power of a good education.