How We Should Protect Girls’ Schools in Balochistan
A couple of recent attacks on private schools and a widely circulated threatening letter from a covert religious extremist group has triggered restlessness among school administrators, female student and their parents in Panjgur district. A relatively unknown religious extremist group has asked all private schools to stop educating girls. The reason provided by the armed group is the same as used across the world by extremist outfits to justify banning girls’ education: the “corrupting influence” western education causes on girls’ character.
These warnings are alarming considering that fact that Panjgur has remained one of Balochistan’s more advanced places in terms of education. A number of private schools run by local teachers and administrators have earned a great reputation for impartial quality education among male and female students in the Pakistan-Iran bordering town.
The warnings to the schools come in the wake of a robust military operation conducted by the Frontier Corps and its affiliated paramilitary partners in the district against what the F.C. describes as “Baloch militants”. (It’s illegal and unacceptable to call anyone a “militant” or a “terrorist” until proven guilty by a court of law and that principle is being flagrantly violated in Panjgur). In one such fresh attack, the F.C. Killed 10 local residents.
Hence, the issue of threats to private schools fails to gain ample attention of the local authorities and community leaders amid a massive confrontation between the security forces and the Baloch nationalists.
The threat to women’s education was not entirely unexpected considering the Pakistani government’s robust efforts to promote radical Islam as a tool to fight Baloch nationalism that has rapidly penetrated in the area.
What eventually happened was the logical culmination of support for extremist Islam. Whenever and wherever extremist religious movements have emerged, women’s rights, their mobility and access to education have become the first casualty. The groups that are seeking an end to girls’ education in Panjgur seem to have an agenda beyond stopping girls’ education. If they are not discouraged and disrupted at this point, they will emerge as a potential threat to the Baloch society.
Any calls against girls’ education are absolutely unacceptable and it is the responsibility of the Balochistan government to take immediate notice of these threats. Panjgur is the home district of Mr. Sabir Baloch, the Deputy Chairman of the Senate of Pakistan and Mr. Rehmat Baloch, Balochistan’s Health Minister. These senior officials should play their role in immediately addressing the matter.
In February 2010, this newspaper, after speaking to the heads of a private school in Gwadar, reported similar threats from a Baloch nationalist group that had described co-education at private schools contradictory to the Baloch code of conduct. Once the society at large denounced such a conservative approach adopted by the nationalists, the armed group was immediately compelled to disown its approach and make a public statement saying that it had not issued such a warning in the first place.
While Baloch nationalists have not been hostile to girls’ education, the very concept of “Baloch honor” has oftentimes obstructed women’s access to education and freedom. The use of religion and nationalism to contain women’s access to education and mobility is both dangerous. Had the Baloch nationalists included women’s education and empowerment among their core values (such as ‘freedom”, “justice” etc.), Baloch women richly benefit from the ongoing nationalist movement.
The only antidote to religious restrictions on women’s education is to include women’s rights and powers as a core component of the Baloch progressive philosophy. The more we glorify and champion the cause of women’s education, equal right to employment and socio-economic empowerment, the more we will provide our society with a viable mechanism to thwart obscurantist ambitions. The future of Baloch progress and prosperity heavily depends on education and empowerment of our women and we must keep it on the top of the list of our social and political responsibilities.
Published in The Baloch Hal on May 6, 2014