Shamila Chaudhary, a former U.S. National Security Council director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told CNN the incident reverberates among women and girls and even conservative Muslims.
"The Pakistani Taliban don't have a lot of support in the Pakistani society," she said. "They don't offer social services and justice, they don't offer any alternative to weak government."
This latest incident "makes them more unpopular" among masses of people who view the aspirations of Malala and the Taliban's resistance to them as a "fight between good and evil," said Chaudhary, a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the act "heinous and cowardly" on Wednesday and said the attackers must be brought to justice.
"The secretary-general, like many around the world, has been deeply moved by Malala Yousufzai's courageous efforts to promote the fundamental right to education -- enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," a representative for Ban said.
Twitter, the closest thing to a barometer of public opinion, likewise lit up.
"Wasn't the brute who put a gun to Malala's little head born to a woman?" wrote Kamran Shafi. "Did he have sisters, aunts, a wife or four? Bloody filthy terrorist!"
Pakistan's picturesque Swat Valley was once one of Pakistan's biggest tourist destinations.
The valley, near the Afghanistan border and about 186 miles (300 kilometers) from the capital city of Islamabad, boasted the country's only ski resort. It was a draw for trout-fishing enthusiasts and visitors to the ancient Buddhist ruins in the area. But that was before militants -- their faces covered with dark turbans -- unleashed a wave of violence.
They demanded veils for women, beards for men and a ban on music and television. They allowed boys' schools to operate but closed those for girls.
It was in this climate that Malala reached out to the outside world through her blog posts.
She took a stand by writing about her daily battle with extremist militants who used fear and intimidation to force girls to stay at home.
Malala's online writing led to her being awarded Pakistan's first National Peace Prize in November.
"I was scared of being beheaded by the Taliban because of my passion for education," she told CNN at the time. "During their rule, the Taliban used to march into our houses to check whether we were studying or watching television."
She said that she wanted to be a political leader, that her country "needs honest and true leaders."
The Taliban controlled Malala's valley for years until 2009, when the military cleared it in an operation that also evacuated thousands of families.
But pockets remain, and violence is never far behind.
For Pakistani public officials, Chaudhary said, the incident is a reminder of the Taliban's ends -- keeping girls from going to school and imposing hard-line religious and cultural values.
Many are in denial and haven't accepted "the extent the Taliban will go to impose their cultural values."
There have been other examples of violence against women, Chaudhary said, including the Taliban flogging of a woman caught on video a few years ago.