Pakistan is experiencing a rare moment of unity across the political spectrum as a wave of revulsion and anger sweeps the country after the attack on Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old campaigner for girls' rights to education, who was shot by a Taliban gunman on her school bus on Tuesday.
Pakistani officials said Wednesday that doctors had removed a bullet from her neck in a lengthy surgery and that she was in critical but stable condition in a military hospital in Peshawar. She remains unconscious and too weak to be flown abroad for further treatment, they said.
The gunman who shot Ms. Yousafzai called for her by name as he boarded the bus, but two other girls were also injured in the attack; they are in stable condition.
"It's the whole country for once that's outraged. They have targeted a 14-year-old who is a national heroine, she's been recognized by the government, she's been on right-wing TV, she crosses the divide – this little child was voicing the feelings of many, many Pakistanis," said Saba Gul Khattak, a prominent feminist researcher, in a phone interview from Islamabad. "People have rallied, and for once, I believe it – it is real unity. This is one point on which the extreme right and the extreme left is united."
Demonstrations in support of Ms. Yousafzai were held in several cities on Wednesday, some schools shut their doors and discussion of the shooting dominated the media. General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of the Pakistani army, said the Taliban were "cowards" who had "failed to grasp that she is not only an individual, but an icon of courage."
The President and Prime Minister denounced the shooting, and Jamaat ud-Dawa, a charitable organization affiliated with the Islamist militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, used Twitter to condemn the attack on Ms. Yousafzai as a "shameful, despicable, barbaric attempt."
Debate is also raging about whether the Taliban has once again established a base, or is operating with impunity, in the Swat region.
Ms. Yousafzai rose to prominence when she was just 11 years old – after Islamist militants from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan took over the Swat Valley region, her home. Among their first acts was to close – and often blow up – girls' schools, in keeping with the movement's belief that girls and women should not be educated. Ms. Yousafzai, whose father ran one of the last girls' schools to defy the ban, began to blog anonymously about life under the Taliban for the BBC's Urdu website. When the fundamentalists were ousted, she became a public campaigner and was recognized with national and international awards for her courage.
The Taliban, apparently unfazed by the public reaction, claimed responsibility for the attack and said they would keep trying until they succeeded in killing Ms. Yousafzai. In addition, men affiliated with the Taliban said they would also attack her father and two brothers.
The attack on Ms. Yousafzai startled many Pakistanis who believed the group had been routed out of the valley in the military's offensive three years ago. A large army contingent is still stationed in Swat.
But no one should be surprised the Taliban are still operating there, said Idreef Kamal, who heads a network of Swat civil-society organizations called the Peace Movement.
"People are afraid of the [security] agencies and of the terrorist groups – people don't know who are their real enemies," he said, a reference to the fact that Islamist militant organizations continue to enjoy support from some quarters of the Pakistani government, particularly the state intelligence service. "They arrested 40 innocent people in Swat in connection with the attack – they never arrest the real culprits. And [in the military campaign] they didn't target the Taliban leadership – they are still at large – so people are feeling a threat."
Mr. Kamal spoke from Peshawar, where he had visited the Yousafzai family in hospital; he said a huge flood of officials from the government and military were also making pilgrimages to the hospital.
Ms. Khattak pointed out that a Taliban attack on a teenage girl had once before proven to be a critical catalyst in spurring the Pakistani government to action against militants. In 2009, a video was widely circulated of the Taliban flogging a girl who had been seen walking out of a building with a man married to someone else. She was held to the ground and whipped while she pleaded for mercy, and when that video spread, it drove public support for the military campaign to oust the Taliban.
When they were gone, Ms. Yousafzai went back to school. In fact, girls' enrolment went up in Swat, said Talimand Khan, a researcher with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, as parents felt determined to express their commitment to educating their daughters.
And this shooting, too, will backfire, he said. "They tried to silence one voice and when they silence one voice, many others are created," Mr. Khan said. "The last time created Malala – after this incident you will see many Malalas in the future. They want to suppress the people and create terror – but it fails, it gives more courage to people."
Mr. Khan was among many family friends and fellow activists who rushed to the hospital when they heard of the shooting Wednesday. The family had received threats but eschewed official protection, he said, because no one could really believe that a 14-year-old girl could be an assassin's target. "They took the threat seriously – but how can you hide? She was a child, she has to go to school and live her life."
Ms. Khattak said children were signing petitions in support of Ms. Yousufzai's work in schools all over Pakistan. "People don't agree she was pro-West; people feel she was very much grounded in Pakistan and Pakistani culture," she said. "The right to education is in our constitution. The poorest of the poor want to send their daughters to school. Things have changed in Pakistan and people do want education for their children – so if you speak for education … who in the world would oppose that?"