By: Nazila Isgandarova
The world is happy to know that Malala Yousufzai from the Swat Valley in Pakistan is doing well and has been discharged from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham in the UK.
Yousufzai has become a hero for the majority of people in the world for challenging the anti-intellectual Taliban in her country, who identified her as a threat to their political agenda when she demanded education for girls.
What Yousufzai wants is not different from what the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) wanted for girls. Since the Prophet’s (pbuh) time until today, the situation has not changed. Gender inequality remains one of the biggest challenges in Pakistan in the 21st century. The majority of girls and women in this country remain one of the most uneducated people of the world.
Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia and the number of Muslims there constitutes 11 percent of the world’s Muslim population. However, gender inequality in education is still extreme despite the Quran’s spirit of “Iqra” (read). According to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), almost 77 million children worldwide are deprived of one of their basic rights: education. Girls make up 56 percent of these children. The Global Campaign for Education reports that more than 5.1 million primary school-aged children in Pakistan do not attend school. Sixty-three percent of them are girls. This is the third highest number of out-of-school children in the world.
A chronic absenteeism from school among girls is worse in rural areas of Pakistan than in the urban areas. Because of the gender inequality in education, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) 2010 report ranked Pakistan 120 out of 146 countries based on its Gender-related Development Index.
A major portion of the Pakistani society is not welcoming for girls, who want to attend school. Even those who are enrolled in schools cannot attend them on a regular basis. What is holding Pakistan back in gender equality in education? There are various reasons, including gender discrimination, early marriage and pregnancy, and physical and mental violence against girls within and outside of schools.
Cultural and social beliefs, attitudes, stereotypes and practices in Pakistan discriminate girls from getting equal educational opportunities. The general tendency in society is to invest in sons’ education, rather than daughters’. Such discrimination against girls results in poor self-esteem among girls in Pakistan, who only envisage a future as wives and mothers.
Early marriage and pregnancy also play a central role in why girls do not receive equal educational opportunities in Pakistan.
Another key reason why Pakistani girls do not attend school is because of violence. A joint report by the UN and the Pakistani government pointed out: “Females in Pakistan face discrimination, exploitation and abuse at many levels, starting with girls, who are prevented from exercising their basic right to education either because of traditional family practices, economic necessity or as a consequence of the destruction of schools by militants.” In 2008 and 2009 more than 40,000 girls in the Swat Valley, where Yousufzai lived, did not attend school due to threats by the extremists.
There are many reasons why the existing gender inequality in education in Pakistan is problematic.
First, the militants violate the Quran by depriving women of their right to education and banning school for girls, even at the expense of their lives and their families. Unfortunately, these people make their claims on behalf of the sunnah, the sayings and actions of the Prophet (pbuh).
Second, Muslims in Pakistan fail to pass on the true spirit of Islam from generation to generation. How is it possible to accomplish this important task if girls are deprived of their rights that the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) declared in the seventh century?
Third, without education women and girls in Pakistan cannot claim their economic, political, social and spiritual rights. Education is the only way to establish, promote and protect human rights.
Fourth, imposing limits on girls acquiring education prevents not only women, but also men from fulfilling their moral responsibility as human beings.
Thus, gender inequality in education in Pakistan prevents women from fully participating in the social, economic, political and spiritual life of the country. It harms society by reducing national and international competitiveness. Therefore, in order to emerge and grow as a country, there must not be a barrier to education for women.
The writer is a Toronto-based researcher and analyst, who also works for the Azerbaijani Women’s Support Centre. This article has been reproduced from the Turkish newspaper, Today’s Zaman, which with TheNation has a content-sharing agreement.