IT has rent apart the social fabric of Pakistani society – Talibanisation. The country is in the grip of militancy, political cataclysm aside it is the vulnerable lot that needs immediate attention – women and children. The message of the Taliban is abundantly clear: anything that is synonymous with modernity has to go. The even clearer message is that women and children have to be cast out of public life.
This is being manifested in the form of the torching and bombing of girls’ schools. In other instances they are simply being closed down due to the volatile security situation in the strife-torn northern areas. The dictatorial fiats of the Taliban are unending. The previous successes have only emboldened the Taliban: reports suggest that the Swat Taliban have announced a ban on female education from Jan 15. They have threatened to blow up all schools violating the ban and forcing schools to close down if they would not abide by their commands. Regardless of the threats actions speak louder than words, 125 schools have been burnt and bombed by militants during the last 10 months.
These actions are reminiscent of the advent of Talibanisation in Afghanistan where women were rendered non-citizens. What is a citizen without fundamental human rights and what is a country without an educated citizenry? Pakistan is the latest victim of this phenomenon. Militancy has compounded the historical problem of low female literacy in the area.
According to a report in the The Christian Science Monitor, Pakistan has one of the highest rates of female illiteracy in South Asia, at about 60 per cent, and the lowest rate of primary school enrolment for girls, at somewhere between 42 and 48 per cent. This deficiency is striking in the NWFP, which, as of 2004, had the lowest ratio of female enrolment of any province in Pakistan, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG). In areas like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), where the government’s presence has historically been weakest, only one per cent of women and girls are literate.
So in a region where female education has made scant progress and women are barely holding on to a small ledge of hope, retrogressive forces are rolling back the little progress that has been made. In addition there are lingering fears that the population of the area is averse to female education and this problem is being compounded by militants. The unbridled, fall-of-dominoes style destruction of girls’ schools not only has a far-reaching impact on the lives of those directly affected by it but on Pakistani society as a whole as it has an adverse impact on the literacy rate of the entire country.
Women have the potential of being one of the most potent forces of moderation. According to Farzana Bari, who heads the gender studies department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, “Because girls are the ones suffering from these oppressive ideas, if they are educated they will be a better ally in the promotion of liberal ideas and secularism.” According to a report “as female education improves, infant mortality rates tend to decrease, family health improves, national incomes rise, and female citizens become more politically active and aware of their rights”. Under prevalent conditions Pakistan is not reaping the benefits of female education.
Women comprise half the population of Pakistan and they live in a state of perpetual fear. This trend is a cyclical process where retrogressive forces prevail. By setting in place a cycle where girls are deprived of education not only is the present generation affected but so is the next. Ignorance breeds ignorance. The literacy rate in the country is already abysmal and this problem is being exacerbated and this trend is going to lead to long-term disenfranchisement of women.
Pakistan may be a patriarchal society but women comprise half the population. Thus the empowerment of women would mean strengthening the position of this significant percentage of the population – surely the welfare of such a large proportion of society cannot be ignored. The government needs to establish the writ of the state despite the ongoing battle in the northern areas. It needs to make female education a top priority to ensure a prosperous and bright future for the country. The ideas and trends which are symptomatic of an extreme interpretation of Islam need to be countered to safeguard the fundamental human rights of all Pakistanis.