The fight for education in Pakistan’s Swat

Students vow to continue their education, calling attack on Malala Yousafzai part of the Taliban’s war against schools.

IMG_0735: Students studying an English lesson at the Parwarish School and Hostel [Minhajuddin/Al Jazeera]
Many students at the Parwarish School became orphans after the Taliban killed their parents [Minhajuddin/Al Jazeera]

Mingora, Pakistan – When the local chapter of the Taliban began challenging the state for control of the Swat Valley in 2007, children’s education quickly turned into a battleground issue between the extremist group’s fighters and the local populace.

Between 2007 and 2011, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Swat, led by Maulana Fazlullah, destroyed more than 400 schools, many of them providing education for girls, the local administration says.

Analysts say the focus on educational institutions was because government schools were public vestiges of the state, but were also not as secure as police stations or other government buildings. The Taliban also proclaimed that public and private schools in the area were providing “Western” and “non-Islamic” education to boys and girls, to which they are particularly opposed.

The shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old activist who championed the cause of girls’ education in the valley, by Taliban gunmen last week was a stark reminder of the extremist group’s stance on the issue of education.

Yousafzai studied at the Khushhal Secondary School for girls, an institution that has been providing girls in Mingora, her hometown, with an education since 1994. There are currently 180 students enrolled at the school, where teachers hold classes for girls in grades five and higher. The Khushhal School also has separate branch for boys.

“She is a very good student, and very well-mannered. There was no hint of pride in her, despite all of her fame,” Tariq Ahmed, Yousafzai’s social studies teacher, told Al Jazeera. “She was very friendly with all her classmates. She did not ask for, or receive, special treatment.”

Ahmed, 37, said that students at the school were shocked when they heard of the attack against Yousafzai, because “we never thought something like this could happen [after the Taliban were driven out]”.

Following the shooting, the school was closed for two days. Monday was the first normal day of classes since the attack, and the school’s administration told Al Jazeera that attendance was almost back to normal, with only “one or two” girls missing.

Ahmed said that Yousafzai’s “way of thinking was always a little different from her classmates – she was more mature. She knew about every subject. Often you’ll find students who are very good in one area but weak in others. She was exceptional in all”.

It’s a statement her school records attest to. On October 9, the day she was shot, Malala had been returning home from completing an examination in Pakistan Studies (a combination of history, geography and social studies taught to Pakistani high schoolers). She answered fluently on a range of topics, from recounting the events that led up the partition of the subcontinent to the asserting the need to control illegal logging. She scored a perfect 100 per cent.

‘War was because of ignorance’

The Khushhal School is not the only girl’s school in the valley: in total, the government runs 571 such schools, out of a total of 1,576 schools for both genders at all levels. There are also approximately 361 private schools operating in the valley.

Hazrat Hussain, 12, is a student at the Parwarish School and Hostel. His father was killed by the Taliban in 2009 [Minhajuddin/Al Jazeera] 

One of those private schools is the Parwarish School and Hostel, operated by a non-governmental organisation to provide orphans in Swat with a quality education.

“About 3,500 people were killed in the Swat Valley, during the war against the Taliban,”  Mehboob Ali, an administrator at the school, told Al Jazeera. “Our survey found that those people left behind about 7,000 orphans. So we began work to help these children.”

Today, the school is home to 72 boys, with a further 28 girls also receiving an education from nursery to grade four at their facilities (but not living in Parwarish’s 13-room hostel).

“We have paid special attention to girl’s education, so that they are not cut-off from the same education that boys receive and can succeed just as much as their counterparts,” Ali, 33, told Al Jazeera.

Ali said that the foundation decided to focus on orphans and those without family support specifically because “it was people like this who became the Taliban earlier”.

“The war was because ignorance. Now I think there is more awareness [about the need for education] amongst people.”

Indeed, it was war that brought many of these children to Parwarish’s doorstep.

‘Killed by Taliban’

Hazrat Hussain, a 12-year-old enrolled at the school, told Al Jazeera about how his father was killed by the Taliban. “I came here two years ago [from my village]. I am an orphan. My father was killed by the Taliban. He was a labourer, and he used to build walls. Our father would sit with the village elders, and that is why he was targeted,” the fourth grader said.

His story is not atypical at the school.

Iqra Muhammad, 10, a third grade student, lost her father, two uncles and grandfather after they were targeted by the Taliban in 2009, apparently for having defied them.

“Religious education is for the afterlife, and the education we receive at this school is for this life.

– Ziauddin, 12, Pakistani student

“My father’s name was Pir Muhammad. I live in the village of Balogram. My father used to run a bakery… On the night of [the Muslim festival of] Eid, I heard a knock at our door. My mother said to my father not to go outside and to close the lights. Then when the knocking came again, and my father went to see who it was, my father, his two brothers and their father, were taken to the town of Takhtaband,” she told Al Jazeera. “They were killed in Takhtaband itself… I don’t know why they were killed, or what the Taliban accused them of.”

Iqra said she wanted to get an education to help support her family, and to grow up to become a doctor. “The Taliban say that girls should not be educated in school, but then what are those girls supposed to do whose parents have died and whose brothers cannot work? If some girl wants to be educated, then she will be able to work, and then she will be able to take care of her mother and her siblings.”

School authorities say that ever since the Taliban left the valley, the focus on education amongst residents of Swat has only increased, particularly with regards to education for female students.

Alia, 23, has been teaching at non-governmental organisations, internally displaced people (IDP) camps and elsewhere ever since she graduated from university two years ago.

“I was a student at college [during the time of the Taliban], and back then it was very difficult. We were fearful [of being attacked], but we also got a lot of support from our families,” she said. 

“Education is very important for everyone, whether they are children or adults. Without education, people are nothing.”

Challenges remain

Reconstruction of the education sector is central to aiding Swat’s development, residents say, but problems still persist in rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed by Fazlullah’s fighters.

“There has been improvement, after many schools were burned or destroyed [but] challenges remain,” said Murad Ali, a district programme officer with the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP). The SRSP is just one of a number of

NGOs working on reconstructing schools and providing teacher training in the district – others include the United Nations, Save The Children, USAID, Qatar Charity, and numerous others.

Malala Yousafzai scored a perfect mark on her Pakistan studies exam prior to being attacked by Taliban gunmen on October 9 [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera] 

The biggest problem, however, remains the reconstruction of schools, Ali says. Only about 50 of the 401 schools destroyed or damaged during the Taliban’s rule have been rebuilt so far, and local officials complain that the process for approving and constructing the new structures is far too cumbersome.

“We have had many challenges in the form of militancy and the floods of 2010, but we have thankfully been able to face them,” said Kameen Khan, the local government officer in charge of education. “Schools may have been lost, but we have tried to make sure that students’ time has not been lost, by constructing many temporary schools.”

Ali, the NGO worker, also points to the disparity in boys and girls education in Swat as needing redressal.

“There are only four higher secondary schools for girls in all of Swat, compared to 17 for boys,” he said. Indeed girls schools across the board are outnumbered by boys’ schools in the public sector: there are 1,005 boys public schools in Swat, compared to just 571 schools for girls. 

“There needs to be awareness that the education of girls is even more important than the education of boys,” said Ali. “Because the girls of today are the mothers of tomorrow… There is still that threat persisting from the Taliban… we need to get that fear out of people.”

And as for the Taliban’s argument that Swat’s children should only receive an “Islamic education” at madrassas, rather than instruction in math, science and other subjects? Perhaps Ziauddin, a 12-year-old studying at the Parwarish School, answered that question best:

“Religious education is for the afterlife, and the education we receive at this school is for this life.”

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera