This week, a 14-year-old girl in Pakistan, Malala Yousufzai, was shot and critically wounded by a Taliban fanatic.
Her activism in supporting education for girls rightly earned her Pakistan’s highest civilian honor. But the Taliban, with its backward views on women and its repellent embrace of violence, seeks to keep women and girls enchained, denying them opportunities for education, development and fulfillment.
In the face of senseless violence and outrageous oppression against women in countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, is hope possible?
The answer is yes. And the evidence was on display this week in Omaha.
That hope arrived in the person of Razia Jan, a U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan who is championing the cause of women’s education in Afghanistan. Jan operates a school for girls outside Kabul and has become a leading figure standing up for educational progress in Afghanistan.
“When we opened the school in 2008 and I had these students coming to register,” Jan told CNN, “90 percent of them could not write their name. And they were 12- and 14-year-old girls. Now they all can read and write.”
More than 3.2 million girls in Afghanistan are now getting an education, according to UNICEF. Although the female literacy rate there is still modest at 13 percent, that is triple the rate from 2001.
Such progress is all the more impressive when one considers the terrible lengths to which Taliban extremists will go to try to block opportunity for female students. The United Nations reports that 185 documented attacks occurred during 2011 against Afghanistan schools and hospitals.
Jan was in Omaha to nurture contacts at Omaha Central High school, where the new International Baccalaureate program is working to build a relationship with Jan’s school.
This is just one more example of how Omaha is contributing in a positive way to supporting progress in Afghanistan. Over the past decade the University of Nebraska at Omaha, for example, has done exemplary work in bringing more than 150 female teachers from Afghanistan to Nebraska to develop their instructional skills.
The Omaha Suburban Rotary Club deserves praise for helping bring Jan to the city and working to sponsor 55 girls at her school.
Indeed, kudos should extend to Omahans, of all ages, involved in these worthy efforts to promote progress and decency in the face of Taliban radicalism.
And what of Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban thug? She remains in critical condition. But her father remains resolute. Despite intimidation by the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, he says, there are many adults and children who understand the importance of his daughter’s message and now will carry it forward.
“We will focus even more on our work with more strength,” he said. “If the Taliban kill Malala, there are thousands and thousands more brave girls like Malala in Swat.”
As long as decent people — in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Omaha and elsewhere — resolve to carry on this cause, the message of hope will endure.