How violence has failed to stop girls from attending school in Panjgur
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.”
In 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.
The 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.
Learning 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.
While 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.”