News and Events:

Women fight terror through education

[Originally published on Gates Cambridge, on 18 December 2015]

Ideas are what cause nations to collapse or rejuvenate. It is ideas and ideology that help people to overcome the barriers in front of them. But ideas need good leadership to spread them effectively. Over history, we have seen how ideas can change people’s thinking and endure throughout time, being handed down from one generation to another.

The important thing is to realize that ‘ideas’ are what alter events in a country and that they work like epidemics. The beauty of nations is in their diversity - every human thinks differently based on the environment in which they are raised. Pakistan is one such beautiful country. It is rich in culture and traditions, values and norms. Many ideas have been born there, raised in communities and shared through close knit societies. The unfortunate thing about ideas is their vulnerability and dependence on the presence or absence of an effective and positive leader.

The past history which has seen Pakistan serve as a battleground for the eradication of terrorism has taught the country to have faith in its community. By coming together people have devised a self-protective mechanism which helps them survive in the face of terrorism. On December 16, 2014 a terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar left a whole city paralysed. It claimed the lives of close to 140 schoolchildren. The survivors were left with horrendous tales of the torture and barbarism that went on inside the school that day. The only difference between this event and many others in the world is that the terrorists struck deep into the hearts and souls of the people of Peshawar by torturing their children.

After this blood-curdling episode mothers of the murdered children said: ‘Send them back to school, we want revenge through education!’ This is not an unfamiliar cry since we have seen such reactions in Pakistan in the past. A few years before this attack Malala Yousafzai was attacked. She survived and rose up to demand the same thing.

What Malala advocated, was not just education and not just in her own region Swat. She advocated hope for women to emerge and be known as ‘people’, people who were influential and in control of their lives. The fact is that over time female oppression had become ingrained in the national culture to the point where women did not consider it an option to speak up, let alone demand their rights. Malala might have attracted criticism in the world and in her own country, but she managed to stir the women of a nation who had forgotten that they existed as people in their own right.

Many events since then have borne witness to a female awakening.  In Swat and other Northern tribal regions there is a dispute resolution mechanism called the ‘Jirgah System’. For many years Jirgahs have been male dominated and only male elders participate in decisions about community issues. In 2013, a female Jirgah was established in Swat, Malala’s city, and it has been in operation since then. While there is no direct causal relationship between its establishment and Malala, I believe it is the ideas promoted by her that have culminated in its formation.

Observing enrolment trends in Swat another thing catches the eye. According to a survey by the Ministry of Federal Education in Pakistan, funded by UNESCO, WFP and UNICEF, the highest percentage increase in public school enrolment in Pakistan in 2013 and 2014 was observed in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the same year the female to male primary school enrolment ratio was 0.76% for Peshawar and 0.92% for Swat valley.

Does this mean that the gender differential in primary school enrolment was more in favour of girls in Swat when compared with Peshawar, a city that showed such a marked increase in enrolments?

These are signs of an emerging awakening, a resilience of women to violence and a determination to improve and pull out of the darkness. The new idea which is propelling this awakening seems to be education. Women in Pakistan are coming back to life, triggered by terrorism and a desire to learn. There is hope for improvement in female education, which has long been considered a pariah in Pakistan. The good news is we have moved two steps forward in our revolution. We have the idea, we are ready, but do we have a leader?

See this article on Gates Cambridge.


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