Learning to cope

How violence has failed to stop girls from attending school in Panjgur


The burnt window of a private school that came under an arson attack in Panjgur, Balochistan.

The burnt window of a private school that came under an arson attack in Panjgur, Balochistan. — Photographs by Fahad Naveed

When 14-year-old Rehana Imam discovered that her school would reopen in August after a two-month break, her joy knew no bounds. Unusual, one may think. Children usually don’t like returning to school after vacations. But Imam’s case is extraordinary for two other reasons: her school is not a fancy facility with beautiful and well-equipped classrooms to lure in children and the break she was having was not due to summer vacations.

She is a 10th grade student at the Ideal Academy, a modest educational institute in the nondescript rock-and-sand area of Chitkan in Panjgur, one of the three districts in Balochistan’s southern Makran division. Her school was shut down because its administrators had received letters accusing them of committing the “crime” of teaching English language to local girls in an “infidel fashion”.

The threatening tone of the letters was reason enough for the administrators to be worried about their own safety as well as of their students. If, however, Imam was to decide whether to close down the school in the face of threats, she would have preferred to keep it open. “Why should I not go to school? Nobody has the right to tell me to stop studying,” she says.

It was such defiance that helped her return to school the day it reopened, even when many other girls chose to stay back at home. “There are 14 girls in my class but on the first day after school reopened, only three showed up,” she tells the Herald. “Yet, my teacher vowed she would continue her lectures even if there was only a single student attending classes.”

 Oasis AcademyIn the vast but sparsely populated Panjgur – less than 400,000 people live here over 16,891 square kilometers – such passion for education is self-evident. The area has 23 private English-medium schools besides 50 government-run Urdu-medium ones. A large part of this educational system is now facing threats. Before the start of the summer, a previously unknown Islamic militant organisation, Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan, sent out threatening messages to all private schools as well as to 30 private English-language teaching centres across Panjgur. The messages first came as mobile phone texts sent to the owners of the schools, as well as their principals and teachers, telling them to stop spreading “obscenity in society” and to put an end to educating girls.

On April 22, Avira Academy, a private school in Washbud area, was attacked, teachers there were beaten up and threats renewed. A week later, four unidentified people targeted the principal of another private school, Maymar-e-Nau Academy in Khudabadan area, as he was supervising morning classes at his institution. The attackers warned him of dire consequences if he continued teaching girls. They also left behind a pamphlet. Preaching against ‘western culture’, the pamphlet named people who were responsible for its spread in Panjgur and who, therefore, were the targets of Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan. On May 13, five masked men intercepted a van carrying eight girls to a school in Sarawan area. The men told the van driver to stop driving girls to school or else face dire consequences.

The same day Hussain Ali, a former major in the Bahraini army whose name was mentioned in the pamphlet and who is a leading member of the private schools association in Panjgur, came under attack while he was on his way to the school he runs. He was lucky to survive.

The attack on Ali had an unintended result: it triggered a wave of protests both in Panjgur and Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, with massive turnouts. Local residents claim that a rally in Panjgur outside Deputy Commissioner’s office on May 20 was perhaps the biggest protest gathering in the district in recent memory. Not just men but women and children also attended in large numbers.

As part of its efforts to ward off future attacks, the All Balochistan Progressive Private School Association also formally informed the district administration about the threats received by the schools. It was on the administration’s advice that the association decided to close down the schools in Panjgur for at least two months while the police carried out its investigation. (In this part of Balochistan, unlike most other areas in Pakistan, schools remain open in summers and have vacations in winters.)

Panjgur is located in the south-west of Balochistan. It borders Iran — most of the local economy is dependent on trade with Iranian areas across the border, much of it illegal. Believed to be on the route of Muhammad bin Qasim’s 8th century invasion of Sindh, the district derives its name from panj (five) guur (graves) scattered across the area.

Depending on whom you ask, those buried in these graves could be either the companions of the Prophet of Islam or Sufi saints who travelled along with Muhammad bin Qasim’s troops but chose to stay in this part of the world rather than moving on to Sindh. Unlike many other parts of Balochistan, Panjgur is not a tribal society lorded over by a chieftain — although, like many other regions in the province where grievances against Islamabad run deep, awareness about, and adherence to, Baloch cultural identity is quite high here.

Given this background, people in the district are expected to be both religious and steeped in their indigenous cultural traditions, the combination of which has an unfavourable bias against women in general and the education of girls in particular. It is unusual, therefore, that over the last two decades or so the district has come to possess what is the best private schooling system – with a sizeable presence of female students – in the entire province outside of Quetta.

Zaahir Hussain, a native of the area, is the pioneer of private education in Panjgur. In the early 1990s, he returned to his homeland after acquiring a degree from the United States and set up an English-language teaching centre which has evolved into a school with several hundred students — boys and girls both. The allegations of spreading western culture through educating girls are, indeed, as old as his language teaching centre. “People said I was an American spy who was bringing American culture to the area to destroy local traditions,” says 48-year-old Hussain.

Clearly, his detractors were outnumbered by those keen on educating girls. Within months, 400 students had enrolled in his language centre and by 1995 he had opened a separate branch solely for girls. “Women in my own family showed interest in learning English,” Hussain says, adding that it was their help that allowed him to enroll other girl students.

The earlier apprehensions about Hussain’s initiative seem to have their origin in Baloch culture. The latest threats, however, appear to be religiously motivated. “First they only demanded that there be separate classes for boys and girls, which most of the schools do in any case,” says a school owner of the warnings received from Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan. “Then came threats that girls should not study at private schools at all and they should only be allowed to go to government schools.” This was followed by the last and final warning: “No education for girls.”

Malik Siraj Akbar, a Panjgur native who now works in the United States where he sought asylum after fearing persecution in Pakistan due to his Baloch secessionist views, says Baloch society is a patriarchal one which does not allow women to be seen in the public. “Women in Panjgur never go to local markets,” he says in an email exchange with the Herald. “Ghairat (honour) and nang (respect) are central components of the Baloch code of conduct called riwaj. In Balochi riwaj, women are treated as the [repositories of the] honour of [a] family; if someone else sees someone else’s woman, it is considered absolutely unacceptable,” he says.

This riwaj, however, is not as immune to change as it once was. In recent times, women have traversed a fair distance in their struggle against such misogynist traditions. Many of them have become teachers as well as ardent supporters of girls’ education regardless of whether it is against local traditions. “My father sent me to Quetta so that I could acquire higher education,” says a female lecturer at Government Degree College Panjgur. Awareness about educating girls has gradually increased among people in Panjgur over the last couple of decades, she tells the Herald, without wanting to be named. “People are willing to bend traditions and send their daughters to study” given the obvious economic and social benefits.

“When Malala [Yousafzai] is attacked and raises her voice for education, she is covered by the national, and then international, media repeatedly. Yet there is no media interest in Panjgur where an entire community is being prevented from receiving education.”

Having successfully skirted tradition, she is now worried about the next hurdle — religion. As the mother of a girl who is studying at a private school which has been targeted by Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan, she sounds harried. “An air of fear hangs around us.”
Rehana Imam’s father, Imam Bakhsh, a frail-looking man with a shivering voice, is equally scared. “You just can’t leave your children alone anymore,” he says as he talks about the mental stress of coping with the situation, and the sleepless nights that have ensued.
Yet, educators, students and parents are all resolute that they are not going to give up. “Death is inevitable so why fear it?” says Imam with a determined voice. During her forced break from school, she also learnt what her options were if she did not get education: staying at home and doing the same domestic chores day in and day out. “I want to go to school so that I don’t have to do boring household chores that my mother makes me do.” Like her elder sister, she wants to study medicine to become a doctor.

The owners and administrators of private schools are making a serious effort to promote change through any means possible. “Speak English only”, reads one inscription inside a private school in large letters. “Give us an educated mother; we will give you an educated nation,” says another. They have backed this up with courageous defiance of any attempts to keep girls out of schools. One private school that came under an arson attack on August 26th ensured that it reopened only a week later, determined to demonstrate that its teachers and students could not be cowed down. The attendance was back to more than 90 percent within a week of reopening.

Some parents and schools have adopted other, less combative, measures to stave off the attacks. Ali, one of the private school administrators, says more than 100 children have left his school to continue their studies elsewhere in the province. Some schools have built walls within their premises to separate girl students from boys. “There may be forces trying to stop us but we are going to push these students towards acquiring a better future,” says a teacher at a private school.

P1010165The lack of media coverage of developments in Panjgur is partially due to the official insistence that local reporters limit their reports to government-sponsored events. Journalists coming in from the outside, which is rare, do not automatically get unfettered access to local residents. The Assistant Deputy Commissioner, for instance, was extremely upset when he discovered that the Herald team had not obtained a No-Objection Certificate before landing in the district.

Complaints about the media’s indifference towards local issues are rife in the district though the residents of Panjgur are unable to specify reasons for that. “When Malala [Yousafzai] is attacked and raises her voice for education, she is covered by the national and then international media repeatedly. Yet there is no media interest in Panjgur, where an entire community is being prevented from receiving education and when people are holding public protests for their right to education,” a member of the private schools association observes.

On the other hand, there is intermittent acknowledgement that media coverage of local issues may be harmful to people whose faces are seen on television and whose names appear in newspapers due to the precarious security situation in the district which has been the scene of many pitched battles between the security forces and the militants. The threats being issued by Tanzeem Al-Islami Al-Furqan have added yet another disincentive for the locals to stay away from the media as it strengthens uncertain security situation in the district. “It is one thing when you know who your enemy is. But the fear of an unknown foe does something unexplainable to a society,” is how a school administrator explains the fears and insecurities of the residents of Panjgur.

P1010128Learning English seems to be a big priority for students and their parents. The faculty and administrators at private schools take great pride in how well their students can converse in English. Average enrollment at a private school is 600-800 students but a few large ones have more than 1200 students each, depending on their reputation to produce good results.

Parallel to these private schools are madrassas. Miftahul Uloom, the first madrassa in Panjgur, started enrolling students as far back as 1947. About a decade and a half ago, the total number of madrassas in the district was 12 to 15. It has now grown to 42, according to Maulana Muhammad Azam, president of the Panjgur chapter of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam–Fazl. “Our party runs 31 of these madrassas,” he says. The number of students studying at these madrassas, however, remains small – 3,000 compared to more than 15,000 in private schools.

Azam firmly believes that girls and boys should not study together but he vehemently argues that segregation in schools should not be enforced “by guns and violence”. He says members of the private schools association recently visited local madrasas where they were assured that students, teachers and administrators of madrasas did not know or support those who were attacking private schools. “In fact, I took part in protest rallies every time there was one,” Azam tells the Herald.

Oasis Academy - a painting showing the Oasis Academy at Panjgur with Pakistan's flag hoisted the flag polls no longer have any flagsWhile members of the private schools association do not know who is attacking them, Dr Samiullah Soomro, the District Police Officer, says the local administration has already identified the attackers who belong to a small group of men just returned from Afghanistan after fighting there alongside the Taliban. “The group was led by two men, Niaz and Naveed. We managed to round up their relatives who told us that the two have escaped to [nearby] Turbat [district],” he says.

Another government official, who is a native of Panjgur, acknowledges that the two men responsible for the attacks represent a new development in the area. “There is a definite presence of elements who are trying to create a space for themselves. Most of them are outsiders. Even if they are locals, they were radicalised in seminaries elsewhere in the country,” he says.

There are also whispers about the role of the security forces and their failure to thwart attacks on schools. The FC headquarters, says a school administrator, is only a kilometre away from one of the schools that was targeted. A security checkpoint is less than 300 metres away from that school. “Yet the FC soldiers were unable to capture a single attacker.”

The daughter of the nation

Photo by Geoff  Brokate

Photo by Geoff Brokate

When in October 2012, a lone gunman shot a teenage girl in the head, he would not have known in his wildest imagination that the life he was meant to snuff out would come back to haunt, in perpetuity, him and those who had sent him on his mission. The point they wanted to make by killing her had backfired. She had defied them a second time. She defied death too.

They should have known better. In a country where so many believe so much to be wrong, but never have the courage or the motivation or simply the desire to speak up, Malala Yousafzai had written a glorious chapter with her steely will and grit in the early part of 2009. Who wouldn’t recall those days when Mullah (Radio) Fazlullah and his band of murderous marauders were allowed to establish sway over the Swat Valley and adjoining areas and enforce their brand of obscurantist Islam and spread darkness in a land where education had traditionally been cherished. In addition to a reign of terror where public beheadings and hangings in the main chowk in Mingora became the order of the day, Mullah Radio’s armed men also started to restrict the freedom of movement of women. They were ordered not to step out of the house without a mehram (male chaperone). All men were advised, under the threat of a bullet to the head, to grow beards. Salons were shut down as they were deemed to be plying an un-Islamic trade. Women suspected of being ladies of the night were kidnapped and executed. Swat residents say the environment was of such fear that nobody felt comfortable confiding even in close friends.

It was against this backdrop that the Taliban decreed female education un-Islamic. They must have thought their brutality was so overwhelming that nobody would dare defy them. They were mostly right, save for a 12-year-old girl who had other ideas. The passion that burned within her for an education for herself and other girls in her area surfaced in the form of a blog on BBCUrdu.com where she wrote under a nom de plume, Gul Makai. Her pieces offered a poignant window to life in Swat. Surrounded by the unchallenged Taliban, who had overrun all established authority and were well-funded, benefitting from a levy on the multi-billion-rupee logging industry in the area, Malala’s defiance must rank alongside some of history’s bravest acts. Her own words, her eloquence, are perhaps the most befitting tribute to her. No wonder she became an international celebrity, and a symbol of defiance to the Taliban and a role model for school-going girls in the country. She must have represented such a sty in the eye of the Taliban that, more than three years after she first became known, they tried to kill her.

Photo by Kohi Marri

Photo by Kohi Marri

Reproduced here from the BBC website, are some of her ‘diary entries’ from that period. She wrote on January 3, 2009: “I had a terrible dream yesterday with military helicopters and the Taliban. I have had such dreams since the launch of the military operation in Swat. I was afraid [of] going to school because the Taliban had issued an edict banning all girls from attending schools. Only 11 students attended the class out of 27. The number decreased because of the Taliban’s edict. On my way home from school I heard a man saying ‘I will kill you’. I hastened my pace … to my utter relief he was talking on his mobile and must have been threatening someone else over the phone.”

A day later, on January 4: “Today is a holiday and I woke up late, around 10 am. I heard my father talking about another three bodies lying at Green Chowk (crossing). I felt bad [upon] hearing this news. Before the launch of the military operation we all used to go to Marghazar, Fiza Ghat and Kanju for picnics on Sundays. But now the situation is such that we have not been out on picnic for over a year and a half. We also used to go for a walk after dinner but now we are back home before sunset. Today I did some household chores, my homework and played with my brother. But my heart was beating fast — as I have to go to school tomorrow.”

A small incident such as Malala’s shooting will bring no change where hundreds of Afghan and Pakistanis, especially women and children, are killed every day by US-led bombardments, drone attacks and terrorism of Islamic fundamentalists. There is, and will be, no turning point because the CIA created these fundamentalists through the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] during the Cold War in Afghanistan and is still empowering them. It is known to all that the Pakistan Army rules the country, and any efforts made against extremism are futile as the Army still supports the fundamentalists, such as the criminals in the Afghan government, the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani), Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin and Haqqani networks.

— Malalai Joya is an activist and former member of the National Assembly of Afghanistan

And my final selection is from January 5: “I was getting ready for school and about to wear my uniform when I remembered that our principal had told us not to wear uniforms and come to school wearing normal clothes instead. So I decided to wear my favourite pink dress. Other girls in school were also wearing colourful dresses and the school presented a homely look. My friend came to me and said, “For God’s sake, answer me honestly, is our school going to be attacked by the Taliban?” During the morning assembly we were told not to wear colourful clothes as the Taliban would object to it. I came back from school and had tuition sessions after lunch. In the evening, I switched on the TV and heard that [the] curfew had been lifted from Shakardra after 15 days. I was happy to hear that because our English teacher lived in the area and she might be coming to school now.”

Such single-minded pursuit of your goal when the penalty could be your life or the life of your near and dear ones is a manifestation of unimaginable courage. Yes, courage may have become a cliché to describe lesser feats but Malala embodies it. She and her family had to leave Swat ahead of the military operation a bit later in 2009 but once the military had broken the stranglehold of Mullah Fazlullah and his faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), she promptly returned. It is also a tribute to her parents that they have supported her through thick and thin when more well off parents in much more secure environments would have backed down in the face of relentless pressure by the TTP. This isn’t a surprise, for her father is an educationist who is known for his efforts for girls’ education. Whatever the longer-term state of education in the country, and particularly of female education, Malala’s contribution to the cause would surely rank as one of the most edifying in Pakistan’s history.

And what a sacrifice it is. The 15-year-old still battles on, in a specialist medical facility in Birmingham, to return to a degree of normality. The gunshot to her head may have fortuitously spared her life but it didn’t leave her entirely unscathed. What else would explain the loss of one of the teenager’s main assets, her disarming smile? Hopefully, she’ll regain it. She must.

As Pakistan faces an existentialist threat, the lack of consensus in society on the fundamentals is alarming, to say the least. There were those who condemned the attack on the Swat girl unequivocally. Then there were those who saw her as a victim but said the attack was part of a grand ‘foreign’ conspiracy to manipulate public opinion in Pakistan. And then there were those who even rubbished the fact that she’d been shot in the head. The level of bile directed against the innocent girl, her father and her family was staggering, given what had happened. Some on social media became medical experts, questioning how the girl could be alive, having been shot in the head; others said they couldn’t see any evidence of a bullet injury —having merely watched her being shifted to hospital on TV.

Pakistan has done an excellent job of explaining to the international community that the Malala tragedy does not fit within Pakistan’s vision for itself. The government has emphasized that girls can already go to school freely and are not forced to adhere to orthodox religious practices against their will. At the same time, law enforcement institutions must set a stronger example in implementation by arresting, prosecuting, and indicting violent extremists. The Pakistani military also has a history of using extremist groups in conflicts related to India and Afghanistan. An adjustment of this policy would also send the message that the government does not advocate religious terrorism and extremism of any kind.

— Shamila N Chaudhary is a Senior South Asia Fellow at the New America Foundation and an analyst with the Eurasia Group.

So, where are we now? Has the teenager’s heroic battle for the cause of education made a big difference to attitudes in Pakistan? It almost appears as if political parties are relieved that she was airlifted abroad and they don’t have to deal with her every day. President Asif Ali Zardari may have visited her in the UK but has the education allocation been upped at home, what to talk of the women’s education budget? Also, there have been reports in the media that at least one other girl from Malala’s school, who was also injured alongside her, is relocating with her family — so overwhelming is the sense of insecurity in Swat, despite heavy military presence. All this as we wait for a political consensus to crush militancy and terror in the country. Some predicate a consensus on holding of elections and others on the US drones disappearing from our horizons.

Illustration by Sabir Nazar

Illustration by Sabir Nazar

Both these goals may be perfectly valid in their own right but the connection between these and the need to clamp down on merchants of terror and their toxic ideology remains tenuous at best. Therefore, Malala Yousafzai, the Karachi teenager Mehzar Zehra (shot dead by sectarian militants on November 30, 2012 as she was on her way to school) and countless others like them across the country, whose aspiration is far simpler and rudimentary – to educate themselves in an environment free of discrimination, fear, intimidation and intolerance – are still being let down. When Malala was attacked, the initial outrage appeared so potent, it triggered hopes for change. A couple of months down the line, the international community continues to fête her, while for all practical purposes, most of Pakistan seems to have moved on.

However, each publicised event to honour her will be a reminder how she, a teenaged girl, stood up to the Taliban when many others simply chose to capitulate. This will be her real legacy. As will be the determined faces of the innumerable schoolgirls she inspired and that one saw on TV after the attack, pledging to carry on with their education no matter what the challenges. There cannot be a worthier personality of the year. Given her courageous, inspirational life in pursuit of her cause; her calm and composed response to the forces of darkness and the fact that she had the choice to go elsewhere and continue to educate herself but chose to make a statement in the midst of a volatile environment for the sake of other girls, leaves her miles in front of any other contender. May she regain her smile, and smile forever. She represents the most beautiful repartee, and a potent symbol of opposition, to the toxic ideology that the Taliban embody.

Interview: Arundhati Roy

Q. Does the attack on Malala Yousafzai represent the much-needed turning point for Pakistan in its efforts to reclaim sociocultural and political spaces dominated by extremism?

A. The attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai is a grotesque and unforgiveable crime. I would love the Taliban to tell us which surah of the Quran requires them to kill a young girl for wanting to go to school. But whether the attack on Malala Yousafzai is a turning point in Pakistan, I really don’t know. After all, religious and feudal extremism have a long and ugly history in our part of the world. In Pakistan and Afghanistan you have women being shot, maimed, imprisoned and deprived of the right to live as equal citizens — by law. In India we take prophylactic action — murdering women in their thousands while they are still fetuses and sometimes just after they are born. Sometimes their husbands burn them for bringing inadequate dowry. None of us is a stranger to the reality of the use of rape as an instrument of war (in recent times in places like Gujarat, Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Bangladesh), or rape as a matter of feudal entitlement (almost anywhere in India), or the phenomenon of honour killing.

Over the centuries, women have risen up to fight against all of this in a myriad different ways. I think Malala Yousafzai is among those many remarkable women — a beautiful and significant milestone in the history of women’s struggles. In his excellent column for Dawn a few months ago, Jawed Naqvi wrote of two other heroic Malalas: 17-year-old Malalai of Maiwand who died on the battlefield in July 1880 fighting the British in the Second Afghan War, and more recently Malalai Joya – of whom Malala was a declared fan – who fought against male bigotry (or shall we just call it barbarism) against women in Afghanistan. She went on to win a seat in the Afghan parliament in 2005.