Mohammed Hanif writes: Apparently, Pakistanis don’t need the Taliban to destroy their schools any more – they can do it themselves. Last week, a girls’ high school was set ablaze in Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore. And no, the Taliban were not the culprits. A mob, enraged after allegations of blasphemy against a teacher, carried out the attack. Instead of taking action against them, the police arrested the school’s 77-year-old owner.
The accused teacher, who allegedly committed blasphemy by photocopying the wrong page of a book for homework, is in hiding. Pakistan may have declared an “education emergency” earlier this year, but it still fails to protect the schools it already has. How did we get here?
“They have shut down girls’ schools,” I told a childhood friend who was effusively praising the Pakistani Taliban after its temporary takeover of the Swat valley three years ago. Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani peace activist shot last month by the Taliban, was a bored 11-year-old schoolgirl then. My friend lived about 350 miles away from Swat, and had three daughters. His reasons for liking the Taliban were simple: they were local heroes who had decided to take things into their own hands. “If only people in our area had the same courage,” he said. “Would you like a Taliban-type system here in your city?” I asked him. Yes, of course, he would.
Every morning, my friend drove two of his daughters to school and was pretty certain that one of them would go to medical school. “But the Taliban don’t allow girls’ education. What will happen when they shut down your daughters’ school?” I asked. My friend was puzzled, but only for a moment. “They wouldn’t do that here. What they did in Swat is their culture, Pashtun culture.”
Not educating girls is not the only myth about Pashtuns: Pashtun mothers produce sons so that they can send them to war; fathers will shoot their daughters if a stranger sees their faces. Of course, as the myth goes, they also don’t want to send their daughters to schools. And why do they need to send their sons to school anyway, if they are born soldiers in an eternal jihad?
But there was no evidence of any such Pashtun culture in the Swat valley I had visited the day before our conversation. When the Taliban made their bid to rule the region, Swat could have easily passed as the education capital of Pakistan. There were law schools, medical schools, nursing schools and more computer schools than any other valley of this size could accommodate. And that’s without counting the hundreds of informal beauty schools that provide on-the-job training for girls so poor they can’t afford any other type of education.
A lot of Pakistanis, as well as people the world over, have expressed their solidarity with Malala by doing the obligatory status update or tweet: “We are all Malala”. But for most people, she is someone else’s child and will remain so. She is a child whose name can be invoked to start another military operation, a child whose name can be used to prove the blindingly obvious – that parents, whatever their religion or culture, would like their children to be at school – if they can afford it.
What is conveniently ignored in the debate over Malala is the fact that every 10th child in the world who doesn’t go to school is Pakistani. The Taliban are not the only ones keeping kids out of school. [Continue reading…]