Girls’ education in Pakistan has always been under attack since the creation of the country in 1947. Sometimes attackers come up in the form of cultural and societal norms, sometimes they appear in the form of gender discrimination, and sometimes it is religious extremism, the latest enemy, which launches attacks on education for girls, though Islam does not discriminate against women at all, and declares it crucial for all Muslims.
The mainstream media reported the latest attack on a girls’ school in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). The reports said unidentified assailants set fire to the Brogi Girls School in the Darel area of Gilgit-Baltistan and abducted the security guard. The press reports show that the latest attack was not the first one in the area. In August 2018, unidentified attackers burnt down at least 12 schools in GB’s Diamer area, spreading fear among people. Eight girls’ schools were reported to have been among those damaged by bombs and set on fire in a series of coordinated strikes. In some cases, books had also been thrown outside schools and set alight, but fortunately, no student was harmed as the incidents took place at night when the schools were closed.
The area people said that leaflets, distributed by a militant group, demanded that girls’ schools be shut down. One read: “We warn all tribal people to stop sending their grown-up girls to schools. We will not tolerate it.”
The impact of the attacks proved to be devastating. A research report, quoting the Global Terrorism Database and Pakistan’s Social and Living Standards Measurement, says that persistent exposure to terrorism significantly reduces the likelihood that parents would continue their children’s education, especially that of their female offspring. The report suggests that for every million people, an increase in terrorist incidents causes 26,501 fewer children to continue their education at the primary school education level.
Gilgit-Baltistan appears to be a new target of extremists. Earlier, the worst-hit regions as far as girls’ education is concerned had been Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and tribal districts. Terrorists attacked a school van in Swat district of KP, where extremist groups have been attempting to impose their anti-education agenda for almost two decades. In the past, they bombed schools, particularly those for girls, banned girls’ education and launched attacks on students.
Armed men on a motorcycle opened fire on a school van, killing the driver and injuring two children, who were travelling to school in Swat. This KP district is the hometown of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever Nobel laureate. The attack refreshed the memories of the attempted assassination of Malala in 2012, when she was only 14 years old. Malala was shot in the face by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan gunmen as she returned home in a van from school.
Later, she said in her interviews she was targeted for continuing her study, in breach of a ban on girls’ education in Swat that had been imposed by the TTP. She survived the attack and emerged as a role model for other young girls not only in the Swat Valley but also the country as a whole. She has since become a global ambassador, working for the protection of women’s rights across the world.
According to official data, extremists destroyed more than 100 girls’ schools in the region from 2007 to 2009. Their destruction spree was stopped when the Pakistan Army had launched various operations in the region to eliminate the enemies of the state and girls education.
A large number of people in Pakistan, and especially in Western countries, wonder why militants are enemies of education, particularly education for girls. Shenila Khoja-Moolji, a researcher, presented her viewpoint on the issue in a report, published in the Washington Post, some period back. An expert in gender and education with a focus on South Asia, she says that girls’ education has historically been a way in which populations have been marked as civilised/uncivilised and modern/backward. This has especially been the case in relation to Muslims.
Shenila says that British colonial officers often used the tropes of the ‘uneducated Muslim’ and ‘secluded Muslim woman’ to legitimise their authority and establish the superiority of their cultural values. Local practices, such as the purdah (veiling) and early marriage were frequently highlighted to signal the degraded condition of Indian Muslims, evidence that worked well within missionary and rescue narratives.
Furthermore, historians of South Asia argued that British women often employed the plight of Indian women to advance their own social positions in Britain and gain valuable work opportunities in India. All this had the effect of ‘othering’ the Indian Muslim woman – positioning her as silent, victimised, and in need of rescue. This has continued to the present day, albeit in a different form, believes the researchers. Consider how Malala Yousafzai, now a Nobel laureate, is typically seen in the West, Shenila points out. She is represented as the girl who defied the culture in Pakistan, and who now embodies a transnational, secular modernity exemplified by her emphasis on independence, choice, advocacy for freedom, and arguments for gender equality.
The researcher expresses her concern that instead of being a symbol of the courage of Muslims and Pakistanis to stand up against local forms of violence, Malala is presented as an exception. This narrative of Malala sustains the façade of Islam as an oppressive religion and Muslims as embroiled in pre-modern sensibilities. Such formulations, however, not only re-articulate the binary of victim/heroine, but also abstract education from a complex web of issues such as state corruption, the hollowed-out welfare system, and lack of access to jobs, among others.
Explaining the case of Pakistan, the researcher says that girls are in school; in fact, there are more girls in higher education than boys. Girls’ education – or, lack thereof – thus, has become a way in which Western institutions have established their own superiority and, simultaneously, the inferiority of Islam and Muslims, deeming interventions necessary and even ethically imperative.
Shenila Khoja-Moolji believes that in the context of these deep and emotional attachments to girls and education, girls who advocate for education (like Malala) and the school infrastructure itself have become prominent targets for extremists as a means to express their anti-West, anti-United States and anti-state sentiments. It enables them to strike at the heart of what liberal global North deems as its most prized project.
Though not based on reality, the extremists represent their attacks as a continuation of their fight against what they perceive to be colonial and foreign influence – mass schooling in Pakistan being a legacy of the British colonizers, who displaced local, indigenous traditions and systems of learning.
The researcher says this is a serious critique that we must take into account if we hope to curb this war on education. It is time, therefore, that we scrutinise the loud debate over girls’ education and dislodge the monopoly of Western perspective on it, thereby making it a less potent site for extremists.
A critical way in which we can further both these ends is by recognising the long traditions of learning that are indigenous to Muslims and Pakistan, attending to the areas and systems of support, identified by girls themselves, as well as supporting organisations such as the Aga Khan Development Network, which ground their efforts in their Muslim ethics and seek to improve the quality of life of populations in Pakistan (and beyond).
(The writer is a physician by profession. She has worked as an intern at the Capital Health (New Jersey) & the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital (New York). Rights and gender issues are the areas of special interest to her. She can be reached at: [email protected])