The fight for education in bin Laden town

13th May 2011 at 01:00
In Abbottabad, charity battles local resistance to educating girls

There was no getting around it: Tariq looked like Osama bin Laden.

In Abbottabad, however, this is not unusual. In the main marketplace, bearded men in waistcoats and round Hajji caps mill around the stalls, buying, selling, bartering. Older men loiter, smoking at the roadside, stroking their hennaed beards. "Most foreigners think they look like terrorists," Tariq said.

But while bin Laden's allies have repeatedly launched terrorist attacks against schools educating girls, Tariq - an area manager for Pakistani education charity The Citizens Foundation (TCF) - quietly attempts to persuade the conservative locals, who were bin Laden's unwitting neighbours, to send their daughters to school.

"Why should girls be educated?" said Meher Fazoon, mother of six sons and one daughter. "Boys are going to go out and earn a living, support their family. But girls just end up at home."

Abbottabad, the Pakistani mountain town where bin Laden was found to be hiding, is often referred to as "the city of schools". But, while city dwellers have sent their children to its elite private schools since the days of the Raj, villagers still struggle to understand why their daughters need any education at all.

"They know religion does not prohibit girls from studying," said Samara Abrar, principal of the TCF school in the nearby village of Battal. "But they're apprehensive that something might happen to their values. What if the lessons are anti-religion? What if their children start doing things that aren't allowed in the family: wearing different clothes? What if they become rebels?"

The challenge for TCF workers is to show that education need not herald the end of Pashtun tradition. In this, they are often joined by the girls themselves. "There's no tradition in my tribe of giving education to daughters," said Zainab Bibi, a 13-year-old pupil at Mrs Abrar's school.

Zainab's father, she said, wanted to withdraw her from school two years ago, but she begged him to let her continue. Eventually he conceded, after making her promise not to speak to any men during the half-hour walk to and from school.

In a village a few miles down the mountain road, 20-year-old Hafiza lives in a four-room house with her husband and four children, along with her mother-in-law, her husband's brothers and their children. She can neither read nor write; she was married when she was 12. "I was very angry," she said. "I wanted to stay in my father's home for another five years. I wanted to go to school."

Now, however, her seven-year-old daughter is attending a TCF school. "My husband and I are illiterate, so we don't have a chance to live in a better way," she said. "But if my children are educated, they will have better opportunities."

She pauses. In nearby Abbottabad, as the world now knows, those with money live in pound;1 million houses. Hafiza's ambitions, however, are more modest.

"I'd like my daughter to be a teacher - then she won't have to worry about finding bread to eat, like I do," she said. "She doesn't need a big house. Just two rooms - a separate bathroom and a separate kitchen. Then her life will be easier. I don't want my daughter's life to be like mine."

Failing system

- 7 million Pakistani children of relevant age are not in primary school, equivalent to the entire population of Lahore;

- Pakistan has more out-of-school primary children than almost any other country in the world;

- 25 million Pakistani children of relevant age are not in secondary school;

- 30 per cent of Pakistanis have received fewer than two years of education;

- only one in three rural women has ever attended school;

the economic impact of this lack of education is equivalent to a natural disaster every year;

- only 36 per cent of Pakistani state schools are in a satisfactory condition, almost two-thirds do not have electricity;

- since April 2010, Pakistan has been obliged to provide "free and compulsory education" for

- all children aged five to 16;

- at current rates of progress, it will be 2100 before children in some areas of Pakistan receive this.

The strawberry principle

"All schools, all colleges, have two great functions: to confer, and to conceal, valuable knowledge. The theological knowledge they conceal cannot be regarded as less valuable than that which they reveal. That is, when a man is buying a basket of strawberries it can profit him to know that the bottom half of it is rotten."

From Mark Twain's notebook. Twain enjoyed such metaphors. In Pudd'nhead Wilson, he wrote: "Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education."

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