KARACHI, Pakistan — At the age of 11, Malala Yousafzai took on the Taliban by giving voice to her dreams. As turbaned fighters swept through her town in northwestern Pakistan in 2009, the tiny schoolgirl spoke out about her passion for education — she wanted to become a doctor, she said — and became a symbol of defiance against Taliban subjugation.
On Tuesday, masked Taliban gunmen answered Yousafzai’s courage with bullets, singling out the 14-year-old on a bus filled with terrified schoolchildren, then shooting her in the head and neck. Two other girls were also wounded in the attack.
All three survived, but late on Tuesday doctors said that Yousafzai was in critical condition at a hospital in Peshawar, with a bullet possibly lodged close to her brain.
A Taliban spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, confirmed by phone that Yousafzai had been the target, calling her crusade for education rights an “obscenity."
“She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it," Ehsan said, adding that if she survived, the militants would certainly try to kill her again. “Let this be a lesson."
As Pakistan has struggled to address the Taliban’s tenacity, the militants have intensified their campaign to silence critics and drive out signs of government influence. That Yousafzai’s voice could pose such a threat to the Taliban — that they could see a schoolgirl’s death as desirable and justifiable — was seen as evidence of both the militants’ brutality and her courage.
“She symbolizes the brave girls of Swat," said Samar Minallah, a documentary filmmaker who has worked among Pashtun women. “She knew her voice was important, so she spoke up for the rights of children. Even adults didn’t have a vision like hers."
Yousafzai came to public attention in 2009 as the Pakistani Taliban swept through Swat, a picturesque valley once famed for its music, its tolerance and as a destination for honeymooning couples.
Her father ran one of the last schools to defy Taliban orders to end female education. As an 11-year-old, Malala wrote an anonymous blog documenting her experiences for the British Broadcasting Corp. Later, she was the focus of documentaries by The New York Times and other media outlets.