MINGORA, Pakistan — The Pakistani Taliban's attempts to deter girls from seeking an education, epitomized by the shooting of 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the face last year, are backfiring as school enrollments surge in her home region.
While Yousafzai missed out last week on the Nobel Peace Prize, her plight is helping change attitudes in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which lies at the center of a Taliban insurgency. The four-month-old provincial government boosted education spending by about 30 percent and began an enrollment drive that has added 200,000 children, including 75,000 girls.
Yousafzai's story "is certainly helping us to promote education in the tribal belt," Muhammad Atif Khan, the province's education minister, said by phone. "Education is a matter of death and life. We can't solve terrorism issues without educating people."
Taliban militants targeted Yousafzai in retaliation over her campaign for girls to be given equal rights to schooling in a country where only 40 percent of adult women can read and write. Though the Nobel award went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Yousafzai was showered with accolades in a week in which she published her memoir: she won the European Union's top human rights prize and met President Barack Obama at the Oval Office.
The shooting occurred a year ago as Yousafzai traveled home on a school bus in Mingora, a trading hub of 1.8 million people where a majority of women still cover their faces and girls aren't comfortable answering questions from reporters. The bullet struck above her left eye, grazing her brain. She was flown for emergency surgery to Britain, where she lives today.
The increased media attention on Swat since the shooting is pressuring government officials to improve educational standards and encouraging locals to send their kids to school.
Three days ago in Mingora, as local channels flashed the news that Yousafzai didn't win the peace prize, high school student Shehzad Qamar credited her for prompting the government to build more institutions of higher learning.
"She has done what we couldn't have achieved in 100 years," Qamar said. "She gave this town an identity."
Four years ago, Taliban guerrillas took control of Swat and imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic law, which forbade girls to attend schools. They beheaded local officials and burned schools in a two-year fight that uprooted 2 million people from their homes in the forested, mile-high valley that sits 155 miles north of the capital Islamabad.
While a 10-week army offensive starting in May 2009 ended their rule, Taliban strikes in the area are common, deterring tourists from visiting the area's mountains, rivers and lakes. Soldiers and local militia conduct frequent patrols to protect the valley from attacks.
For many in Mingora and elsewhere in Pakistan, Yousafzai's global fame represents an attempt by the U.S. to disparage local culture. The government says Taliban attacks have killed more than 1,200 civilians, soldiers and police this year. U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 116 people, including 11 civilians, according to the Long War Journal.
"We don't want our daughters to go out and speak against our traditions," said Wali Khan, 50, a restaurant owner in Mingora. "U.S. drones are killing innocent kids and women in our area. Do they really care about us? All they want is to malign us through this girl who is playing into their hands."
While enrollment is increasing in other parts of the province, the Khushal Girls High School & College founded by Yousafzai's father has suffered. New admissions at the school Yousafzai attended have dropped since her shooting, administrator Iqbal Hussain said. It had added about 50 new students per year.
"The environment is not the same," Hussain, 38, said in an interview outside of the two-story school, which was guarded by the police and Pakistan's army.
Other schools in the area are doing better, however. Enrollment is surging in both private and government-funded schools, according to Ahmad Shah, the chairman of Private Schools Management Association, an organization that represents 500 schools in the area. His school has seen a 10 percent rise in admissions this year, the most since the Taliban's ouster.
"In our schools, girls are saying I want to be like Malala," Shah said. "They are relating themselves with her in many ways."
Malala symbolizes millions of Pakistani women who are deprived of basic education and equal work opportunities. Only 22 percent of women aged 15 and older go out and work in Pakistan, compared with 78 percent of males in the same category, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics.
The country's prominent female leaders include Shamshad Akhtar, a former central bank governor, and Fahmida Mirza, a former parliament speaker. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed in an alleged Taliban attack in 2007.
Malala started blogging under a pseudonym for the BBC when she was 11 years old, chronicling her love of learning and Taliban oppression in Pakistan. The following summer the New York Times filmed a documentary about her life. As she rose in prominence, the Taliban targeted her for maligning insurgents.
"Taliban wanted to silence me," Yousafzai said in an interview with the BBC last week. "Malala was heard only in Pakistan, but now she is heard at the every corner of the world."
Sadiqa Ameen, a 15-year-old school girl in Swat, said she wanted to read Yousafzai's book, titled "I am Malala." The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, has threatened to kill Yousafzai and target shops selling her book, the Dawn newspaper reported, citing spokesman Shahidullah Shahid.
"This is probably the first ever book written by a Swati girl," said Ameen, who lives near Yousafzai's school. "I am sure her story will be something we all know and have gone through during the Taliban rule."
Musfira Khan Karim, 11, prayed for Yousafzai's success in the Nobel competition with her 400 schoolmates in Mingora.
"I want her back here among us," Karim said in her school's playground. "I want to know more about her. I want to meet her."