Empowering Change: Gender and Education in Pakistan
I found myself in an urban slum of Lahore, standing in front of a crowded classroom of 12 year old girls. They sat submissively in a dim, humid room since the school had neither electricity nor ventilation. I was in Pakistan to conduct research on education policy reform.
Lahore is the city I grew up in. Even though I was raised in a privileged household, and in the middle of an elite College education abroad, I could still relate to the day-to-day struggle of being a girl child in Pakistan. There are many unspoken rules for women. One in particular is the expectation that as a woman you should not speak your mind. So I decided to take a risk and assign a task asking the girls I was teaching to do exactly that.
I tasked them to write an anonymous essay describing what they would do if they were principal of the school for a day. The word ‘anonymous’ brought confusion to their face, and when I explained its meaning and implications they giggled; it was a concept that no student really believed could exist. As a result, they wrote essays praising the school and their teacher (me), thinking that they would be punished if they said anything negative.
But there was one exception. One girl wrote a very honest essay. She said that if she were principal for the day the first thing she would do is move the water cooler that was kept inside the staff room to a place where the children – who studied through the Lahore summer – could access it too. This might not sound surprising to many, but in Pakistan it was remarkable. She wrote with honesty and conviction, boldly advocating for her right to clean water. I kept that essay.
I tell this story now because in Malala’s interview with CNN, she is asked a similar question: What would you do if you were the President of Pakistan? She replied by saying that she would build many, many schools, explaining that if you have educated people the Taliban will not come to your area. The interviewer, momentarily taking on the role of a hostile, Taliban interlocutor, pushes her for a further response: “You’re 14; you have no idea what you’re talking about! We’re going to shut down your school”. Malala asks for a moment to think before replying. She then says, “I will show them the Quran. The Quran doesn’t say that girls are not allowed to go to school”.
What is phenomenal in this moment is not just Malala’s conviction in her right to education, but her bravery in deciding to engage in discourse even in the face of an aggressive opponent. This, when the CNN interviewer had already given her the option of sending in the army to “handle the Taliban” as an alternative to talking to them.
The question then becomes: How can we foster this same spirit amongst young Pakistani women to openly and without fear stand up for their rights? How can we empower thousands of colleagues for Malala, across social, economic and provincial divides in Pakistan? As a Pakistani woman and an expert on education policy, I recommend the following three immediate interventions to the Government of Pakistan.
First, textbooks must champion more real and current role models of women leaders for children. For a country that has had a female Prime Minster twice, and belongs to a region where every country boasts the same (India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), the textbooks still only emphasize Fatima Jinnah, who led the Independence Movement in 1947, and women religious leaders from 1400 years ago when Islam first spread in Arabia. Second, by increasing the number of female teachers in classrooms the government can normalize the presence of educated and empowered women to the young minds of boys and girls. Finally, school exams and testing must reinforce critical thinking and reward respectful dissidence on crucial values, such as the place of women in society. Unless Pakistan changes how gender is taught in schools, it will deprive millions of young girls not just of their right to be equal citizens but also the right to demand basic needs, such as clean, drinking water in schools. For now, these voices are silent or at best captured in an anonymous essay written by my student at that impoverished school in Lahore.
Mariam Chughtai is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is leading the “Friends of Malala” organisation (www.friendsofmalala.org) with a team of Harvard students and Malala’s close family friends.