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 schoolgirl spoke out about her passion for education — she wanted to become a doctor — and became a symbol of defiance against Taliban subjugation.
On Tuesday, masked Taliban gunmen answered Malala'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.
All three survived, but late on Tuesday doctors said that Malala 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 Malala 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."
The shooting provoked outrage across the country, angering Pakistanis who have seen a succession of stories about violence against women by the Taliban.
In Parliament, Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf urged his countrymen to battle the mindset behind such attacks.
"Malala is my daughter, too. She is Pakistan's daughter. If this (extremist) mind-set persists, which girl in Pakistan will be safe?"
Media figures shocked by the attack on Malala quickly denounced the Taliban.
Hamid Mir, Pakistan's most popular talk show host, began his program Tuesday night with the words: "I can see the whole nation's head bowed in shame today.
"I want to ask those who shot a girl who only wanted to go to school: Do you think you are Muslims?"
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the shooting "barbaric" and "cowardly."
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 Malala's voice could pose such a threat to the Taliban 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."
Malala's father ran one of the last schools to defy Taliban orders to end female education. As an 11-year-old, Malala — named after a mythic female figure in Pashtun culture — 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.
"I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban," she wrote in one post titled "I Am Afraid."
The school was eventually forced to close, and Malala was forced to flee to Abbottabad, the town where Osama bin Laden was killed last year. In summer 2009, the Pakistani army launched a sweeping operation against the Taliban that uprooted about 1.2 million Swat residents.
The Taliban were sent packing, or so it seemed, as fighters fled into neighboring districts or across the border into Afghanistan. An uneasy peace, enforced by a large military presence, settled over the valley.
Malala recently changed her career aspiration to politics, friends said.
"We found her to be very bold, and it inspired every one of us," said another student in the group, Fatima Aziz, 15.
"She had this vision, big dreams, that she was going to come into politics and bring about change," said Minallah, the documentary maker.
That such a figure of wide-eyed optimism and courage could be silenced by Taliban violence was a fresh blow for Pakistan's beleaguered progressives, who seethed with frustration and anger on Tuesday.
"Come on, brothers, be REAL MEN. Kill a school girl," one media commentator, Nadeem F. Paracha, said in an acerbic Twitter post.
The attack was also a blow for the powerful military, which has long held out its Swat offensive as an example of its ability to conduct successful counterinsurgency operations. The shooting occurred in the center of Mingora, Swat's largest town, offering further evidence that the Taliban remain a deadly force.
Kamila Hayat, a senior official of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, praised Malala for standing up to the militants and sending a message across the world that Pakistani girls had the courage to 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. "These are the forces who want to take us to the dark ages."