The following articles and interviews from leading South Asian activists and educators provide a helpful introduction to some of the key issues facing Hoshyar and education advocates in the region.
The Book Bus and the Alif Laila Society by Don de Silva
"On a green patch of land in the heart of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous state, Punjab, stands a brightly coloured double-decker bus. Unlike other buses, it is not used for transporting passengers. Instead, the bus helps to shift the minds of children in the area to wider horizons. Inside the bus, both the upper and the lower decks are neatly stacked with…"
Upstaging Censorship: An Interview with Madeeha Gauhar by Meeran Karim
"Pakistani theatre group Ajoka has entertained audiences across South Asia for the last 28 years, while its fight for social justice and a secular Pakistan has been internationally recognised. Himal caught up with the woman behind Ajoka, Madeeha Gauhar, while she was in Kathmandu for the 4th Annual Conference of the South Asia Women's Network (SWAN)…"
First There Should be a Law: An Interview with Hina Jilani by Waqar Gillani
"Nobody can stop progress and change. However, it has been very slow, and it also gets reversed from time to time. There has been a regression. When you talk to somebody from my mother’s generation, they enjoyed much more freedom even in a conservative environment. They were able to operate in a very different way. The younger generation is now worse off. It is because the society has deteriorated in its own values…"
Promoting Diversity through Children’s Books in Pakistan by Fauzia Aziz Minallah
"Pakistan is going through tumultuous times. Growing militancy has worsened the security situation in many parts of the country. Increasing violence coupled with successive governments’ inept educational policies threaten the very existence of education in general and girls’ education in particular…"
"It is somewhat erroneous to speak of the women’s movement in Pakistan because, historically, Pakistan has witnessed a multiplicity of movements with different aims, methods, ideologies, and class and regional locations. Some of these include organisations such as Voluntary Women’s Service, Business and Professional Women’s Association, Democratic Women’s Association, All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), Sindhiani Tehreek, and Women’s Action Forum…"
The State of School Education in Pakistan by Inayatullah
"Earlier this month, an important regional seminar was held in Lahore to address issues of equity and quality in school education. It was organised by ITA (Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi) and South Asia Forum for Education Development in collaboration with Educational Testing Service USA, DFID, UKAID and Open Society Foundation as a follow-up of the Salzburg meetings…"
On a green patch of land in the heart of Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous state, Punjab, stands a brightly coloured double-decker bus. Unlike other buses, it is not used for transporting passengers. Instead, the bus helps to shift the minds of children in the area to wider horizons. Inside the bus, both the upper and the lower decks are neatly stacked with books.
The book bus, as it fondly called by the local people, is the first children’s lending library in Pakistan. It was the first project of Alif Laila, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to improving the standards of education among disadvantaged communities in Pakistan. The organisation was established in 1978.
Several "education experts" cautioned Midhat and Basarat Kazim, directors of the Alif Laila Society, against setting up the bus project. You cannot trust the children in the area, they were warned. The response would be poor, and the parents would not send their children to the library. The children might take the books and not return them. Alif Laila’s experience has proved otherwise. The library has been much in demand. Books are returned in time. The library has a membership of over 1,000 children.
After this experience, Alif Laila persuaded the Punjab government to construct a reference library next to the double-decker bus. The reference library also contains magazines, games, puzzles, photocopying facilities, and a TV set and video cassette recorder. Educational films are shown regularly.
Every day after school, the children in the area make a bee-line for the libraries. Both libraries keep a number of books on environmental issues in several languages, including Punjabi and English. A volunteer teacher from the Alif Laila Society is present at library hours and sometimes holds discussions on problems that affect the children and the community.
Basarat and Midhat Kazim are concerned about the quality and standard of education among the disadvantaged communities in the developing countries. They are critical of stereotyped education methods and rote learning. "Many children drop out, as state schools have poor facilities, and education is largely irrelevant to the needs of the community," said Basarat Kazim.
The Society constantly searches for innovative education methods. Four years ago, Alif Laila’s hobby clubs were born in a rented house, about a five-minute walk from the libraries. The place is now a major education resource centre. The centre conducts hourly classes in computer science, art, photography, crafts, aero-modelling, mechanics, and wood-work. The emphasis is on practical training.
The centre also uses drama and puppetry to communicate messages. The children put on plays for their communities. The content touches on themes like the importance of education, preserving the environment, and health and sanitation. "Readosaurus," a green dinosaur, is a popular character in several plays that encourage children to learn rather than drop out of school and become educationally "extinct."
Using the hobby clubs as the base, Alif Laila tried out an interesting experiment: to facilitate contact between rich and poor children. They invited children from a leading private school in the area to help children attending the hobby clubs to learn English. The exercise benefited both sides. According to Midhat Kazim: "All children developed a healthy relationship. There was a feeling of give and take. The poor benefited in learning English. The rich children were also educated in the causes of poverty and life in the slums."
Alif Laila’s latest venture began when Basarat Kazim investigated the conditions of the schools around Lahore. During one of her visits, an old school master confronted her and forced her to listen to the poor conditions that teachers had to work with. Basarat informed him that she was not from the Education Department. But the school master went on. "At this point, I realised that hobby clubs and libraries alone were not enough. We had to go deeper into the community," she added.
As a result, Alif Laila began schools in slum areas. The first was started in a Bihari community. The teachers had a difficult time during the first six months. Some parents demanded money for sending their children to school as the children were earlier sent to work to earn money for the family. Although attendance initially was low, gradually the numbers began to grow. The mothers, in particular, grasped the importance of education. Across fences and at water taps, word about the community school quickly spread around the area. The Pathans living next to the Bihari community asked Alif Laila to also set up a school for their boys and girls. This request surprised the organisation as that community had been thought to object to the education of women.
Alif Laila has written up the syllabi and teaching aids that are used in their education programmes. Based on their experience, they have also evolved a 90-day functional literacy programme, which requires one hour of teaching and learning per day. The organisation is keen to share their experiences with other NGOs, and also to set up libraries, hobby clubs, and community schools in other parts of Pakistan. "Our methods are not only effective, but affordable as well," said Midhat Kazim.
Pakistani theatre group Ajoka has entertained audiences across South Asia for the last 28 years, while its fight for social justice and a secular Pakistan has been internationally recognised. Himal caught up with the woman behind Ajoka, Madeeha Gauhar, while she was in Kathmandu for the 4th Annual Conference of the South Asia Women's Network (SWAN).
Himal: How did the idea of establishing a theatre company come to you?
Madeeha: I was already involved in the performing arts scene in Pakistan before Ajoka came along. I was acting in Pakistani television serials and was an active member of Lahore's dramatics society in Government College University, where I was pursuing my Master's degree at the time. The prime catalyst for Ajoka, however, came under the dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in 1977. When Zia introduced media censorship, limiting freedom of speech, performing arts in Pakistan received a severe blow. I distinctly remember Pakistani kathak dancer Naheed Siddiqi's famous weekly TV show Payal being taken off air in 1978. Everyone was affected by Zia's 'Islamisation' policies. As an actress, it became difficult for me to play the roles of women who accepted his retrogressive interpretation of the Quran. Along with some actor friends, I then set about to establish a theatre company which would also act as a vehicle for dissent. That's how it all started, and today Ajoka continues to tackle controversial issues in both Pakistan and across the region.
Did you face challenges in your earlier years? Yes, because I was also involved in the women’s movement in Pakistan, which was opposing the discriminatory laws and anti-women legislation brought in by Zia ul-Haq. I was involved in demonstrations and protest meetings, and was arrested twice and jailed along with other women activists in 1983. As I was also a lecturer of English at a government girl’s college in Lahore, my involvement in such initiatives angered administrative authorities. An inquiry was held, and at the end of the 'investigations', I was asked to either apologise for my anti-government activities or resign from my post altogether. Of course, I didn’t apologise and consequently my job at the college was terminated. That's when I devoted myself entirely to Ajoka.
Ajoka just recently marked its 28th anniversary, and I couldn’t be happier. The theatre group is not only challenging dogmatic thinking in Pakistan, it is also contributing to good theatre via plays which balance both the content and form. As various governments had failed to promote arts in Pakistan, the theatre landscape in Pakistan was rather barren. When we first arrived as a theatre group, there were only amateur and school productions. Ajoka in many ways introduced theatre as a serious art form to Pakistan.
In 2007 Ajoka staged a satirical play, entitled 'Burqavaganza', on the veil worn by many Muslim women in both Pakistan and across the Islamic world. Can you elaborate on this production and the reception it received in Pakistan? When we staged that play, we thought about using the burqa as a symbol for religious extremism in Pakistan, but it wasn’t just about the rising ‘Talibanisation’ of Pakistan post-9/11. We were interested in the larger historical narrative, such as the flawed idea of an exclusive Muslim state, which lies at the root of our problems today. Since its inception in 1947, Pakistan has been hijacked by extremist elements, both at home and abroad. Not only women, but large sections of Pakistani society have been negatively impacted. 'Burqavaganza', through its dialogue and imagery, commented on that aspect of Pakistani identity. The play shows a young Pakistani couple trying to keep their relationship alive – a love story in the time of jihad. Everyone in the play, both the female and male actors, wears a burqa, mocking the sheer hypocrisy in a hidden society.
And the Ministry of Culture banned it from being staged in Pakistan? Yes, and that too without having seen the play. A female member of the National Assembly (MNA) belonging to the Jamat-e-Islami party asked the government to ban the play and to arrest all of us under the draconian Blasphemy Law. While we weren't arrested, the Ministry of Culture forbade us from staging the play in Pakistan.
This must have come as a surprise to Ajoka, as the ban came under the rule of General Pervez Musharraf, a passionate advocate for 'enlightened moderation' and the driving force behind Pakistan's media boom in the mid-2000s. It did come as a shock. Here we had a president, a strong ally of America's ‘war on terror’, who was interested in presenting a softer image of Pakistan to the international community, while simultaneously appeasing conservative elements within the Pakistani state and society. Yet, when we restaged the play 'Burqavaganza' three years later in 2009 under the supposedly secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government, our stage license was revoked. I was asked to present myself to the standing committee on culture and apologise for my irresponsibility – once again on baseless grounds, as no one in the committee had seen the play. It showed us that even relatively progressive elements in Pakistan wouldn’t come to our aide, and I realised that Pakistan had been radicalised from within, and the space for people with a secular vision was no longer there.
Have you performed 'Burqavaganza' for international audiences since then? We performed for Indian audiences in Mumbai, Kerala, Delhi and Amritsar. Most recently, a South Asian theatre group in San Francisco, USA, staged an English adaptation of the play. Ajoka welcomes such initiatives, as they demonstrate an interest in Pakistan and its peoples. Whereas 'Burqavaganza' is not playing in Pakistani theatre halls, our latest play called 'Amrika Chalo' (Destination USA) is generating much controversy in the country. Set outside the US embassy in Islamabad, it also features, amongst many other visa applicants, an Islamic cleric who wishes to sell square-shaped samosas in America. Shahid Nadeem, the writer and director of the play, got his inspiration from a fatwa passed in Somalia, which banned the sale of triangular-shaped samosas as they resembled the holy trinity. A trivial issue, but it nevertheless demonstrates the lunacy of this recent wave of religious fundamentalism.
As the first Pakistani theatre group to perform in India and host of the Panj Pani ('Five waters') Indo-Pak theatre festival, Ajoka is committed to cross-border cooperation. What impact has Ajoka had on the ongoing peace process between the two countries? Unfortunately the Indo-Pak theatre festival has not been held for the last few years because of the security situation in Pakistan. Nonetheless, Ajoka has been lucky, in that it has been able to carry its message across the border. We have performed for audiences as large as 20,000 people in Amritsar, India. From Srinagar to Kanyakumari, Ajoka has performed its plays for the Indian public at large. The peace process has benefited; our Indian audiences are now aware of elements in Pakistani society which stand for peace and mutual respect and partnership in all areas imaginable. Ajoka has also contributed to strengthening a South Asian identity. When we performed our play on the Punjabi Sufi saint Bulleh Shah in Kerala, most of the 3000 members in the audience did not speak Punjabi, or even Hindi for that matter, yet they felt an overwhelming sense of familiarity. There is such a thing as a South Asian identity, and Ajoka hopes to amplify that voice.
Donor aid, pouring in from North America and Europe, is flooding Pakistan's non-profit sector, to support initiatives such as schools, documentaries, and theatre groups. Has Ajoka been approached by any donors, and will it consider donor aid? Currently Ajoka has no donor funding. We have a strong artistic and political vision, which will not be compromised, no matter how lucrative the offer might be. Of course that means we will continue to face financial difficulties, because for the Government of Pakistan, culture is the lowest priority; unlike in India or other South Asian countries, there is no support for performing arts.
What is in pipeline for Ajoka? Any plays to look forward to? This year, we are celebrating legendary Pakistani writer Sadat Hasan Manto's 100th birth anniversary in Pakistan and India. Plans are currently underway to restart the Indo-Pak Panj Pani festival – as Pakistan's poor security situation derailed plans to host it last year – and dedicate it to Manto's legacy. We have invited groups from Mumbai, Calcutta, Amritsar and New Delhi to perform in Pakistan, as there is a lot of interest in Manto's work across India. Apart from that, we are planning to stage plays for SWAN’s LEELA festival in New Delhi in the coming year. The focus will be on female voices, the secular and the sacred in South Asia. Of particular interest to me is the 19th century Punjabi Sufi Bhakti poet, Peero Preman. Not much is known of her work – Ajoka hopes to change that.
Meeran Karim is an editorial assistant at Himal Southasian. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, she is currently a student of politics at Mount Holyoke College in the USA.
The News on Sunday: How would you look at the women’s rights movement since its creation in Pakistan? To what extent has it progressed?
MHina Jilani: One should remember that the movement started with the Pakistan Movement, because within the latter there were women’s voices that drew attention to women’s rights. The new leadership was asked to understand issues of gender identity and equality and the right to non-discrimination. Unfortunately, at that time women’s voices were pacified by reassurances that such issues would be addressed once Pakistan was created. I’d say that the women were cheated. Once the country was made, the leadership had other priorities.
However, as we notice, the political rhetoric was always pro-women even though nothing was done in concrete measure. Even if you take the August 11 speech of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, it points out development in areas where equality and non-discrimination were necessary elements, but there was nothing specifically meant for women.
TNS: What was the effect of General Zia ul-Haq’s regime on the women’s rights movement?
HJ: Women were not a very active component of any concrete consultation that took place before the 1956 Constitution. Some ad hoc measures were taken, but there were no significant stakeholders involved in that consultation. Our real shock came in 1979 when Zia introduced anti-women laws in the name of religion. They were against women’s dignity.
The kind of laws that were introduced infused violent energy into the women’s movement. The Women’s Action Forum (WAF) emerged as a key forum. WAF was not only talking about women’s issues but was critical of religion as the basis of the laws. It was saying that we do not accept the hegemony of the military and the mullah, that we do not accept religion as the basis of law-making.
Today, thirty years later, we have been proved right. Since 1988, every political party is talking about women’s role.
TNS: How do you view women’s empowerment in the corridors of politics?
HJ: I think that is one of the most positive experiences. We had been fighting for 33 percent allocation to women in all tiers of politically representative houses and bodies. When these seats were reserved, we were a little skeptical, especially when a lot of political elite or women with clout entered through this quota. I am happy to say this skepticism proved wrong. Over the years the performance of these women really improved. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report says that most of the human rights legislation tabled in Parliament is introduced by women.
TNS: What is the situation of working women’s rights in the past several years? It seems it has improved.
HJ: Working women’s situation has improved. When Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988, there was an increase in confidence among women. We were working with telephone operators, and we saw their confidence grow. We need, of course, to put in more protections. The new law on sexual harassment is a very good addition to the legal framework, and I am sure women who are working will get much more safety and dignity than before in future.
TNS: There has been reasonable legislation on women’s issues from time to time. But when we look at implementation, the pace seems very slow.
HJ: In my view, implementation is a second step. First, there should be a law.
It is true that women-related legislation and rights-based legislation have a very weak mechanism. More laws are being proposed, but what we need is a mechanism on the ground. For example, in violence against women you need to have access to a complaint procedure. Who will take the case forward? The mechanism and process have to be settled. The state should play its role when a complaint is made. The burden of the victims who face social pressure has to be shifted to the state. Also, the victim has to be protected.
Secondly, if a system exists and we do not use it, we lose it. My philosophy is that we need certain basic things in the law. If we don’t agree with everything, we can amend the law as is required.
TNS: How do you see the pace of the women’s rights movement and what gaps do you find in it?
HJ: Nobody can stop progress and change. However, it has been very slow, and it also gets reversed from time to time. There has been a regression. When you talk to somebody from my mother’s generation, they enjoyed much more freedom even in a conservative environment. They were able to operate in a very different way. If you talk to somebody of my generation, again there will be a little deterioration. The younger generation is now worse off. It is because the society has deteriorated in its own values. Very strange notions have come in like what women should be like and how they should be active.
The empowerment of this generation is more because of information, not because of social support. A more serious thing is that the movement could not improve its outreach accordingly. Given the circumstances and environment in which this movement grew, it is phenomenal. But at the same time the reality is that it had no outreach.
The danger is that women are more aware of their rights than ever before, but society’s consciousness has not risen to the parallel level of awareness.
Pakistan is going through tumultuous times. Growing militancy has worsened the security situation in many parts of the country. Increasing violence coupled with successive governments’ inept educational policies threaten the very existence of education in general and girls’ education in particular.
Between 1975 and 2000, the school-age population in Pakistan doubled, with poor families turning to religious schools (madrassahs) as the only affordable option for their sons’ education. Boys in these schools receive neither proper academic nor technical training, which makes it difficult for them to access the job market. While opinions differ as to how militancy has grown to menacing proportions, the growth of madrassahs has repeatedly been cited. The decline in quality of government-run schools has been a key factor both in the drop-out rate – which stands at over 50 per cent for the first five years of learning – and in the resort to madrassahs.
General Zia-ul-Haq and his eleven years of Islamization did the greatest damage to our link with our multicultural South Asian past. Not only did Saudi-funded madrassahs mushroom throughout the country, even the curriculum of state schools changed drastically. Successive civilian governments, as well as the 'Enlightened Moderation' rule of General Musharraf, were unable to undo the destructive policies of the Zia regime.
During the recent conflict there are many examples of children whose childhood has been lost. The Taliban destroyed hundreds of schools, mostly girls’ schools, where students were the victims of bombing by their own army as well as of the violence of terrorists. Drone attacks also have resulted in the loss of innocent civilian lives.
In this scenario, where children are exposed to unprecedented violence, what can a Pakistani children’s writer do? Writing about the importance of cultural diversity and Sufi Islam, once hallmarks of a rich and diverse South Asian culture, is my choice. My passion for writing for children converges with my activism, whose objective is to promote non-violence, multiculturalism and environmental protection.
It was in 2002, post 9/11, that I felt the need as the mother of two young boys and as a children’s writer for books that encourage non-violence, tolerance and diversity. It had disturbed me greatly when I heard an eight-year old boy say, ‘Good, it (the destruction of the Twin Towers) happened to the Americans. Look what they are doing to poor Afghan children.’ I was very concerned about this comment and felt that we all needed to act to change the messages our children absorb from their surroundings. When I repeatedly heard messages of hate, war and enmity from the lips of children, I decided to write books for Muslim children, knowing that this world was not an easy one for them to live in.
I developed a cartoon character for children, Amai, the magical bird. Amai is made of light and a million tiny stars. She is a friend of children. Her special friends are Ali and Seema. This tiny bird can turn magically into a shooting star and zoom around the world taking Seema and Ali on exciting adventures. My first children’s book, Amai’s Wish, encourages compassion and empathy with the suffering of others.
In my second book, Children of Light, Amai introduces Pakistani children to an Indian child. The book’s aim is to promote peace and tolerance between India and Pakistan and create awareness of the horror of nuclear weapons. It is indeed sad that India and Pakistan, with huge populations living in abject poverty, have spent billions in a senseless arms race. Children, as it is, absorb messages of violence on television, whether in the form of their favourite cartoon channels or aggressive sports such as wrestling. Why should the ultimate symbol of aggression be presented to children as a symbol of pride? Children of Light was published and distributed free of cost in Pakistani schools.
In 2006, I wrote and illustrated Sadako’s Prayer about a young victim of the Hiroshima nuclear holocaust. Here Amai features with Sadako, an 11-year old Japanese girl who survived the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Since her story is true, Sadako makes a fine symbol of hope for children traumatized by conflict or environmental disasters. After the devastating earthquake of 2005, the book was distributed among children living in the earthquake-affected areas of Azad Jammu & Kashmir. During the recent conflict in northwest Pakistan which displaced thousands of people, I also encouraged children to draw and paint as a way of exorcising their fear of the Taliban and army shelling. Wherever I went, I organized story telling sessions and distributed Sadako’s Prayer.
In addition to children’s books, I have produced books for adults and young students. Glimpses into the Soul of Islamabad is a coffee table book that promotes the multicultural heritage of Islamabad and respect for Nature. It espouses peace by encouraging young people to respect their city’s diverse religious heritage, which includes the material culture of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Christianity.
The most negative outcome of the process of Islamization that began in the 1980s is the nation’s collective loss of its sense of identity. This is especially true in the case of children deprived of an understanding of and respect for their millenia-rich pre-Islamic heritage. My book Chitarkari and Banyans – the Pursuit of Identity reflects the quandary that my children and I face.
These humble steps are my contribution to working with children and promoting ideas of diversity and tolerance through books and art. I represent the tiny minority of Pakistani children’s writers in Pakistan who promote peace and diversity. We must keep on producing children’s books to contribute to bringing about a better future for our children.
It is somewhat erroneous to speak of the women’s movement in Pakistan because, historically, Pakistan has witnessed a multiplicity of movements with different aims, methods, ideologies, and class and regional locations. Some of these include organisations such as Voluntary Women’s Service, Business and Professional Women’s Association, Democratic Women’s Association, All-Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), Sindhiani Tehreek, and Women’s Action Forum. Apart from these, most political parties have their women’s wings.
Some organisations, like APWA, focused on women’s welfare work along with legal reforms. Begum Raa’na Liaqat Ali Khan and APWA played a central role in the passage of the Family Laws Ordinance of 1961. This ordinance ensured women’s rights in marriage, divorce, and cases of custody, and made the second marriage of a man contingent upon the permission of the first one. The decade of the 1960s was characterised by a relationship of mutual accommodation between the mainstream women’s movement, represented by APWA, and the state.
A similar relationship of cooperation and accommodation prevailed during the first tenure of the Pakistan People’s Party, from 1972 to 1977. Begum Nusrat Bhutto attended the First World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975, and the government committed itself to supporting women’s rights. In 1973, the PPP government gave a new constitution to the country, and Article 25 (a) in the fundamental rights section of the constitution ensured that there would be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone. Even though the freedoms of speech, expression, movement, and residence were granted, the rights of women were circumscribed by the norms and values practised in the family and supported by the society at large.
After the illegal overthrow of the PPP government in 1977, the relationship between the women’s movement and the state underwent a radical transformation — from accommodation to confrontation. An illegal military government needed to legitimise its rule and used a facile Islamisation to justify its takeover. While the economy and other sectors connected with the global system were exempted from the effects of some of the so-called Islamic measures, the judiciary, education and the media were subjected to radical changes to conform to the official version of Islam.
A series of discriminatory laws were passed that targeted the rights and equality of Pakistani women. These included the infamous Hudood Ordinances of 1979, passed in the same year that the United Nations General Assembly formed the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Zina Ordinance equated rape with adultery and made the conditions of proving rape so difficult that women reporting rape were accused of having committed adultery. The Qisas and Diyat Ordinance was proposed but deferred as it would have prevented the hanging of Zulfikar Bhutto. It was passed in the 1990s and is the main law that enables fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, and uncles to escape punishment after murdering women on the pretext of ‘honour.’
In 1984, the repressive government of General Zia passed the Law of Evidence which equated the testimony of two women with that of one man in a court of law, thus legally rendering women unequal and reducing their citizenship status.
A series of other measures to curtail women’s rights, such as preventing the women’s hockey team from proceeding abroad to play, were a sign of an oppressive regime hand in glove with an obscurantist lobby of self-styled, self-serving religious zealots. Women’s right to work, to participate in sports, to appear in media were threatened. Vigilante groups wielding guns and sticks believed it to be their duty to make society ‘pious’ and ‘virtuous’ by resorting to armed violence, threats, and intimidation.
In the midst of this suffocating atmosphere, the WAF movement was born — in 1981. The Fehmida-Allah Bux Hudood case resulted in women finally mobilising to stop the advance of retrogressive laws. The relationship with the state now became openly confrontational. The more the state imposed its ideological agenda to prove its Islamic credentials, the more women spoke out openly against it. Women poets, writers, singers, dancers, actors, lawyers and academics all rose up in revolt and condemned the regime.
WAF became the most prominent and internationally recognised face of the women’s movement. In spite of its primarily middle class origins, the issues WAF raised were those that affected women from the dispossessed classes. Most of the women languishing in jails under the Zina Ordinance belonged to poor and rural households and were raped by their employers or feudal landlords and then put behind bars on the charge of adultery. Most women killed in the name of so-called ‘honour’ did not belong to the elite classes but to the middle and lower classes.
While WAF’s approach remained primarily liberal, the Democratic Women’s Association (DWA) was deeply concerned with class and socio-economic issues of women. A left-oriented organisation, its bent was not on welfare of the poor; rather it espoused a political economy approach and emphasised structural change in the class system along with change in patriarchal structures.
Sindhiani Tehreek was another response to the oppressive Zia era and was based in Thatta and Badin. Although it represented the women’s wing of the Awami Tehreek, Sindhiani Tehreek was a vibrant rural women’s movement against patriarchal structures as well as the despotic state. Its radical, action-oriented approach was premised on real, material change in women’s lives.
With the advent of the democratic decade between 1989 and 1999, the relationship between the women’s movements and the state was less frictional but also more ambivalent. Benazir Bhutto was supportive of women’s rights and attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. During the periods of Nawaz Sharif, however, there was much greater ambivalence, particularly when he tried to get the Shariat Bill (15th amendment) passed. This amendment would have made him an absolute dictator, as the government would have the right to define virtue and vice and identify who represents each.
Nevertheless, it was also during Sharif’s second stint in power that the National Plan of Action, based on the Beijing Platform, was endorsed in 1998. In spite of a two-thirds majority in parliament, the PML-N government did not remove the 8th amendment which protects all of the discriminatory laws, measures, and orders formulated in Zia’s regime.
By the 1990s, non-governmental organisations had become a reality, and a large number of women’s organisations were established. At this point, the political approach of WAF and DWA gave way to a more technocratic, specialised, and professional approach. Paid activism blunted the political edge of earlier years, but donor funding ensured that issues could be taken up more easily. Some women’s organisations ended up working with the Musharraf regime at the donors’ behest. The peasant uprising of the Anjuman-e-Mazareen in Punjab during Musharraf’s time, in which the women peasants played a leading role, was not taken up by the women’s movement in a significant way. While there was support from individual women and organisations, there was no direct and lasting involvement.
The pressure created by the women’s movement led to the passage of the Women Protection Act of 2006 which diluted the Zina Ordinance and allowed rape to be investigated according to the Pakistan Penal Code. However, in December 2010, the Council of Islamic Ideology, created during Ayub Khan’s time, declared the Women Protection Act against Islam. This showed that women’s empowerment could not be taken for granted as it was not a linear phenomenon — rights can be reversed and lost as easily as they are granted.
In contemporary times, civil society organisations seem to have taken over. Some of these organisations have done excellent work in getting favourable laws passed, such as the law against sexual harassment in the workplace, law against anti-women practices to deny women’s inheritance rights, and the Act of Parliament to create the National Commission on the Status of Women. The passage of these laws is commendable, and the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus and the Standing Committee on Women have worked tirelessly with women’s organisations to bring about legal change.
However, the women’s movements have to consider moving beyond the realms of law and legal structures, to socio-economic and structural change. Without the latter, transformations in law remain futile because the majority of poor women with little means cannot access legal remedies. Women’s movements, therefore, need to focus on issues such as land reforms and redistribution of wealth, in order for laws to be implemented and better laws to be framed by assemblies that do not overwhelmingly represent the feudal and moneyed elite.
The writer is an independent researcher specialising in social development
Earlier this month, an important regional seminar was held in Lahore to address issues of equity and quality in school education. It was organised by ITA (Idara-e-Taleem-o-Agahi) and South Asia Forum for Education Development in collaboration with Educational Testing Service USA, DFID, UKAID and Open Society Foundation as a follow-up of the Salzburg meetings.
Following the example of Prathom and ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) in India, ITA has been carrying out annual surveys of school education in Pakistan.
The inaugural session of the seminar was addressed by Rukmini Banerji, Director, ASER Centre, India. She spoke about the ASER experience in India. She said that 97 percent (gross) of children aged 6 to 14 are enrolled in schools, but 50 percent of them in grade 5 cannot read grade 2 level texts. The data for arithmetic is equally depressing. The challenge in India, according to her, is how to effectively improve learning outcomes.
In Pakistan, the conditions are no better, if not worse. The net enrolment at the primary level is around 60 percent. Attendance of teachers and students in schools leaves much to be desired. According to the Pakistan Task Force report released last year, on a given day 15 to 20 percent of public sector teachers are found absent, leaving children for one day a week without teaching. It is estimated that out of 365 days of the year in Pakistan, public school teaching takes place only on 120 days or so. The rest of the days, the schools are either closed or remain busy in other activities; teachers have to attend to such non-teaching duties as election-related assignments.
In Pakistan today, about eight million children are out of school at the primary level and according to an estimate, the number of 5-16 year olds out of school is 20 million. And 40 percent of those who do join school at the age of 5, drop out during the first two years.
In a paper presented at the seminar, Dr Faisal Bari and Ms Nargis Sultana drew attention to the fragmentation of education in Pakistan. To quote: “Our education system is divided on lines of geography, class, income/wealth, medium of instruction, cost, syllabi, curricula and gender and these differences manifest themselves in differentials in access, dropouts and in the quality of education that is imparted. And existing differences in educational provision will, inevitably, create even bigger differences in the future. If our objective is to educate all children, and at least to a minimum standard, so that they can have some equality of opportunity, or at least a bigger set of opportunities available to each of them, we need to challenge the existing differences and divisions.”
Dr Iffat Shah, who summed up the findings of the seminar, made a few thought-provoking observations: “Teacher quality is fundamentally important to student learning - although we do need to remember that the teacher is not the only factor that affects learning. Teacher quality seems to be most frequently measured in terms of academic credentials. But there is little or no evidence that higher credentials or pre-service training lead to better quality of teaching. We also heard some evidence suggesting that teachers are struggling and demotivated. However, there is some evidence that school-based professional development can prepare better teachers, as assessed by their students’ learning. We need to know far more about teacher educators and teacher education colleges. A variety of models of teacher education was presented. It will be important to assess the impact of these teacher training or professional development programmes on teacher practice and student outcomes. If there is no positive effect on teaching quality and student learning, then it will be a wasted effort. It was claimed that finding out about impact may be expensive, but I submit that not knowing will be far more expensive.”
More wise words came from Zubaida Mustafa, Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, Ahsan Iqbal, Kasim Kasuri and Ali Moeen Nawazish. Hoodbhoy emphasised a thorough review of the existing out-dated educational system. He was critical of the exam-based learning, which rests on memorising and not “internalising” knowledge. Kasuri said that schools were not relying on real life skills, and that teacher training only improved “professional practices,” but failed to improve the learning outcome of a child. There was need for relating it to school-based monitoring. Ahsan Iqbal remarked that the problem lay with the insensitivity of the ruling elite towards education. Quality teachers were needed to impart knowledge relevant to changing global requirements. He pleaded for enhanced allocations for education and standard curriculum designed by the federal government. Zubaida Mustafa dilated on the plight of the poor children and observed that when children are undernourished and stunted, and have not been exposed to a healthy and positive social environment that encourages mental and cognitive stimulation, they will not have the capacity to benefit optimally from good pedagogy and excellent textbooks. She advocated stringent social controls on the private sector, not by pulling them back, but by encouraging them to take the weaker section of the society along with them.
As far back as 1947, in his message to the All Pakistan Education Conference, Quaid-i-Azam had warned: “The future of our state will and must greatly depend on the type of the education and the way in which we bring up our children as the future servants of Pakistan.” We still are waiting for the emergence of political will from our rulers in this benighted country.
The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and political and international relations analyst.