Dr Aamir Jamal has a vivid memory from his childhood. He remembers walking along with his mother through his native city Peshawar’s Saddar Bazaar on a pleasant evening. A young woman wearing a typical Pashtun shawl suddenly appeared from a corner of the bazaar and hugged his mother. The young woman was so overcome with joy that tears rolled down her cheeks. Years ago, she had been a student of Jamal’s mother in a primary school in one of the villages on Peshawar’s outskirts.
The woman was now a mother, cradling a child in her hands. She bought the young Jamal a present from a nearby toyshop and whispered in his ears, “Aamir, your mother is my beloved teacher. She taught me for many years and brought me out of darkness.” That incident had such an impact on Jamal’s life that he decided to follow in his mother’s footsteps to educate Pashtun women.
Jamal now serves as an associate professor of international development at the University of Calgary in Canada, but he has not forgotten his mission to change the lives of Pashtun girls through education. He recently wrote an inspiring research-based book titled The Gate Keepers, which explores the issues of gender justice and obstacles in the promotion of girls’ education in Pashtun areas of Pakistan, offering innovative models and strategies to effectively address the issue.
The author critiques the image of the miserable, submissive, helpless, third-world women portrayed by western scholars and development agencies. He argues that there are multiple identities and roles for Pashtun women — that Pashtun women are also strong, resilient and courageous. He argues that the status of a Pashtun woman changes significantly when she becomes a mother. She is then perceived to be the most respected and strongest personality inside the home and the community. As a mother, she plays a powerful and decisive role in various socioeconomic and cultural matters of the family and larger community. This, he argues, needs to be explored and positively utilised by development actors.
Jamal argues that it is important to earn the trust and support needed for girls’ education through the effective use of the community’s traditional institutions such as the hujra (a community centre for men), jirga (council of elders), and jamaat (mosque). Given the patriarchal nature of Pashtun society, he argues that girls’ access to education will not improve until the community, and particularly Pashtun men, are actively involved in changing the situation. The author particularly emphasises the significance of religious and cultural values in this conversation.
“Strong voices coming from the mosque could effectively shift the discourse about how to be a good Pashtun man," he argues, suggesting that we need to evolve and reform our understanding of Islam while critically reconsidering our sociocultural practices. It is especially important to acknowledge that the Universality of Islam requires us to accept the diversity in interpretations of text and the diversity of cultures within the boundaries of the core principles of the scripture. It is also important to be clear that the text cannot be properly understood without context.
Jamal’s research thoroughly explores the perception of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the community. He finds that due to increased involvement of the international community in the region following the Cold War, NGOs have grown rapidly and have become more significant and contextually complex. He states that most NGOs are perceived with deep suspicion and concern among the Pashtun society. "NGOs are perceived as an extension of western imperialism — the smiling face of western invaders.” NGOs are not trusted because the community thinks they are involved in violations of local culture, the spread of immorality, corruption, and lack of credibility and transparency. The research further explores the characteristics of an ideal NGO for the community and develops a framework for effective and trustworthy NGOs.
The book comprises 242 pages and has now hit stalls in Canada and around the world. It is published by the Iqbal International Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad and can be purchased for 700 rupees or 10 US dollars. Written in an engaging style, its readers can get a close glimpse of the lives of Pashtun women and the patriarchal norms of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “Despite the significant contribution and focus of the international community and the active involvement of non-governmental organisations in the education sector, the literacy rate of Pakistan remains at 49.9 per cent, one of the lowest in the world and, notably, South Asia. The situation is especially serious for girls, whose literacy rate in rural areas is just 25 per cent, and whose enrollment drops from 55 per cent to 20 per cent from grades 1 to 6,” narrates Jamal.
During his research, the author found that poverty, Pashtunwali (the Pakhhtun code of life), religion, poor accessibility, limited resources, shortage of female teachers, irrelevance of curriculum, lack of political will and corruption were the major hurdles in girls’ education. He, thus, stresses the point that men are the gatekeepers of the current gender order and the prospective rheostats of social change in the region.
To minimise gender discrimination and promoting girls’ education, Jamal suggests keeping the values of Pashtun culture in mind and increasing the number of girls-only schools in the region. He also states the government should redesign the school curriculum by involving community elders in the decision-making process and addressing their reservations. The author’s workable suggestions can serve as guidelines for the new Pakistani government to form policies for girls’ education, as well as provide various models and strategies for international institutions and NGOs working in the region.
The author is the founding director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the University of Management and Technology, Lahore. He is currently based in Canada.