Malala Yousufzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani school girl shot by a Taliban gunman, appears likely to survive the attack. Doctors removed a bullet from her head this morning during a three-hour operation.
Yousufzai is well-known in the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, where she advocates for girls' right to go to school. On Tuesday, a gunman walked up to a bus carrying children home from school, asked for her by name, then shot her in the head and neck, wounding another girl at the same time.
A helicopter lifted Yousufzai to a nearby military hospital where doctors stabilized her. Doctors said they were forced to begin operating in the middle of the night after Yousufzai developed swelling in the left portion of her brain. They removed a bullet from her body near her spinal cord. Yousufzai remains unconscious and the other girls injured during the attack are in critical condition.
Yousufzai began writing a blog for the BBC in 2009 under the pen name Gul Makai. She spoke publicly for the need for girls' education, which the Taliban strongly opposes. The extremist movement was quick to claim responsibility for shooting her.
"This was a new chapter of obscenity, and we have to finish this chapter," Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told the Associated Press by telephone.
In her BBC blog, Malala wrote about daily life, detailing the tension and fear that many families in the region experienced under the Taliban's rule. In one entry, she described waking up to artillery fire. In another, she recalled the day school administrators allowed students to forgo their school uniforms for the day. She and her friends wore their favorite dresses, coming to class in bright colors, despite fears of attack, since the Taliban would not approve of their outfits. She watched her friends move out of the Swat Valley after the Taliban issued an edict banning girls from school and described how her family could not go on an evening walk because of the Taliban-enforced curfew.
While chairing a UNICEF-supported children's assembly in the valley last year, the then-13-year-old championed a greater role for young people.
"Girl members play an active role," she said, according to an article on the U.N. organization's website. "We have highlighted important issues concerning children, especially promoting girls' education in Swat."
She was nominated last year for the International Children's Peace Prize, a form of recognition awarded by the Dutch organization KidsRights. Extremists say they targeted her because she "promoted secularism."
The shooting provoked outrage across the country. Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf condemned the attack and called her a daughter of Pakistan. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the shooting "barbaric" and "cowardly."
The Swat Valley - nicknamed the Switzerland of Pakistan - was a popular tourist destination for Pakistanis until 2007, when militants began asserting their influence in the region. They gained complete control in 2008 and began enforcing Sharia law. They forced men to grow beards, restricted women from going to the bazaar, whipped women they considered immoral, and beheaded opponents.
Taliban militants in the region also destroyed about 200 schools, both girls and boys schools. They temporarily closed the private school owned and operated by Yousufzai's father. At one point, they began banning female education.
While the Pakistani military managed to flush out the insurgents during a military operation in 2009, the Taliban's top leadership escaped, leaving many Swat Valley residents on edge.
Kamila Hayat, a senior official of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said Yousufzai's activism sent a global message that Pakistani girls could fight for their rights. But she also worried that Tuesday's shooting would prevent other parents from letting their children speak out against the Taliban.
"This is an attack to silence courage through a bullet," Hayat said.
Yousafzai's survival is bittersweet. Her friends and family are thankful that she's alive but must now determine how to keep her safe. On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Islamist militant group, Ehsanullah Ehsan, told BBC Urdu on Tuesday she would not be spared if she survived.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.