KARACHI, Pakistan — Tens of thousands of people rallied in Pakistan’s largest city Sunday in the biggest show of support for a 14-year-old girl who was shot and wounded by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education and criticizing the militant group.
The Oct. 9 attack on Malala Yousufzai as she returned home from school in Pakistan’s northwest horrified people inside and outside the country.
Demonstrations in support of Miss Yousufzai have been fairly small compared with those focused on issues such as U.S. drone attacks and the NATO supply route to Afghanistan that runs through Pakistan.
Pakistan’s mainstream political parties often are more willing to harangue the United States than direct their people power against Islamist militants shedding blood across the country — partly out of fear and partly because they rely on Islamist parties for electoral support.
One of the exceptions is the political party that organized Sunday’s rally in Karachi, the Muttahida Quami Movement. The party’s chief, Altaf Hussain, criticized both Islamic and other political parties for failing to protest the attack on Miss Yousufzai.
He called the Taliban gunmen who shot the girl “beasts” and said it was an attack on “the ideology of Pakistan.”
“Malala Yousufzai is a beacon of knowledge. She is the daughter of the nation,” Mr. Hussain told the audience by phone from London, where he is in self-imposed exile because of legal cases pending against him in Pakistan. His political party is strongest in Karachi.
Many of the demonstrators carried the young girl’s picture and banners praising her bravery and expressing solidarity.
The leaders of Pakistan’s main Islamic parties have criticized the shooting, but also have tried to redirect the conversation away from Taliban violence and toward civilian casualties from U.S. drone attacks.
Cyril Almeida, a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, said this type of “obfuscation” prevents Pakistanis from seeing “there is a continuum from the religious right to violent Islamism.”
“The religious right creates an enabling environment for violent Islamism to recruit and prosper. And violent Islamism makes state and society cower and in doing so enhances the space for the religious right,” Mr. Almeida wrote in a column Sunday.
Miss Yousufzai earned the enmity of the Pakistani Taliban for publicizing their behavior when they took over the northwestern Swat Valley, where she lived, and for speaking about the importance of education for girls.
The group first started to exert its influence in the Swat Valley in 2007 and quickly extended its reach to much of the valley by the next year.
They set about imposing their will on residents by forcing men to grow beards, preventing women from going to the market, and blowing up many schools — the majority for girls.
Miss Yousufzai wrote about these practices in a journal for the BBC under a pseudonym when she was just 11.
After the Taliban were pushed out of the Swat Valley in 2009 by the Pakistani military, she became even more outspoken in advocating for girls’ education. She appeared frequently in the media and was given one of the country's highest honors for civilians for her bravery.
The Pakistani Taliban said they carried out the shooting because Miss Yousufzai was promoting “Western thinking.”
The young girl was shot in the neck and the bullet headed toward her spine. Two of her classmates were also wounded in the attack.
Doctors at a military hospital operated on Miss Yousufzai to remove the bullet from her neck and she was put on a ventilator.
Her condition improved somewhat on Saturday when she was able to move her legs and hands after her sedatives were reduced.
On Sunday, she was successfully taken off the ventilator for a short period and later reconnected to avoid fatigue, the military said. Doctors are satisfied she is making slow and steady progress.
Authorities on Sunday confirmed the arrests of three brothers suspected of involvement in the attack.
More than 100 people have been detained for questioning in the attack, though almost all were released. Police took the three brothers into custody early Saturday.
Authorities do not believe they were the gunmen who tried to kill Miss Yousufzai, but they would not discuss what role the men may have played.