Taliban militants have banned female education in the northwest Pakistan valley of Swat, depriving more than 40,000 girls of schooling. Last month, the Taliban warned parents against sending their daughters to school, saying female education was "unIslamic".  The warning was reiterated by a close aide to militant leader Mullah Fazlullah in a message broadcast through an illegal FM radio station on Friday night. Government schools have been shut down and some 300 private schools due to reopen next month after the winter break will probably remain closed, a senior official said.

The development highlights the extent to which the Taliban have extended their influence from the tribal regions on the border with Afghanistan into Pakistan itself, and their willingness to challenge Pakistanis' way of life.

In the same vein, the blog All Things Pakistan, in a post headlined "Pakistan at War: No Women Allowed" runs a photo of a banner in Mingora, the main city in Swat, which it says reads: "Women are not allowed in the market."  It says the Taliban has banned the entry of women in markets and ordered the killing of women who violate the ban. "From the picture, this is clearly a textile and cloth market -- the type of market where, in Pakistan, you would expect most customers to be women," it says. It also says that most shop owners have sold or shut down their business because of falling sales.

So what's going on here? Is this only about the Taliban enforcing their religious views even at the risk of alienating the local population? Neither the parents whose daughters have been banned from school nor the shop owners appear to welcome the development.  Or is it more about them showing their power to intimidate as part of a longer-term strategy?

Other conservative Muslim countries do not have bans on female education -- for example in Saudi Arabia female students make up a little over half of those enrolled in schools and universities, although they are strictly segregated.