Overcoming adversity and reopening schools in Swat
I asked if the students liked Malala Yousafzai, but to my surprise, 28 of 32 girls said 'No'.
As one travels, on the highway, from Peshawar to Swat, the lush green fields, dotted with tall poplar trees, appear breath-taking, and gradually the silhouette of the mountains become visible. The low-lying mountains gain height and the sound of water springs, gushing from the crevices of rocks create a melancholic music.
On a winding road from the Chakdara to Mingora, people are seen crossing the clear waters of river Swat, on makeshift bridges, and plum trees with delicate pink flowers bloom on the roadside orchids.
Not only does Swat cast its spell on visitors with its wide towering mountains, whose peaks are half-hidden by curls of mists, but also another element of surprise is the mushroom growth of schools, both for girls and boys, in the Swat valley.
The construction boom of schools in Swat belies the image of a war-ravaged region, infested with militants, where schools are routinely bombed by the Taliban militants, and where school girls are shot for speaking about female education. But the truth is that in the aftermath of the military operation, which was launched in 2009 to reclaim the area from militants, the people of Swat are seen eagerly sending their children, including girls, to the English medium schools being built with generous foreign donor funds.
To understand what has triggered the school boom in Swat, I visited Fiza Ghat Sangota Presentation Convent, which had been blown to pieces in 2008 by Taliban militants for providing western education to girls and for acting as a centre of Christianity.
After the partial reconstruction work, the school was re-opened in 2012. Some parts of the school, however, such as the gymnasium and auditorium are still under construction. As I took round of the school, beautiful girls, smartly dressed in their uniforms, with their hair neatly tied in ponytails, sang poems, in Urdu and English, with full gusto and enthusiasm. The younger girls synchronised their hand movements animatedly to convey the meaning of the poems.
The students of the middle and senior sections were perfectly fluent in English. The school principal, Sister Greta Gill, explained that when the girls are admitted in the nursery section, they can only converse in Pashto, but gradually, they become fluent in both Urdu and English.
The classrooms were visually pleasing and tastefully decorated with artwork, maps, murals, stuffed toys and models of stars, comets and planets. The windows were not draped with curtains, as is the practice in all schools, and you could view the misty clouds hanging low over mountain peaks right outside the class windows.
When I asked the girls in ninth grade about their career aspirations, all of them replied in a chorus that they wanted to become doctors. However, as I prodded a little more, three girls added, after some hesitation that, they want to become army officers, and one chipped in, to my utter surprise that, she wished to become a cricketer like Shahid Afridi. So, apart from the conventional vocation of medicine, some girls were also striving to enter male-dominated professions.
Then, I put another question to the class, I asked if they liked Malala Yousafzai and, surprisingly, the class echoed with a resounding
Unable to believe their response, I asked the girls to raise their hands if they didn’t like Malala, and, 28 girls, in a class of 32, raised their hands.
Then I asked them to explain why they felt this way about Malala – a daughter of the soil and a global symbol of resistance to Taliban tyranny and misogyny.
“She likes Obama, so we dislike her,” said one girl.
“She is using her story to earn money,” answered another.
Considering the fact that the Taliban militants have put the girls of Fiza Ghat Sangota Presentation Convent under great ordeal by bombing their school, the anti-Malala narrative of the students mirrored the narrative of Taliban against Malala. They felt that she was pandering to western interests and bringing a bad name to Pakistan.
The joviality and confident demeanour of the Swati girls had taken me by surprise, but their anti-Malala sentiments, had also left me flabbergasted.
Still perplexed, I turned to Sister Greta Gill, the moving spirit behind the re-building and renovation of school. She had shifted to Swat from Rawalpindi, before the school opened in 2012, and began the admission process under the shade of trees. I personally witnessed her taking care of her students just like any doting mother would – a mother who took pride in their achievements.
Sister Greta said,
“The people of Swat are socially conservative, and parents, especially mothers, are not educated; so, the girls are brought up on the ages-old anti-colonial narrative, which, in a way, echoes the Taliban narrative. We are unable to counter that narrative at the school, as the Taliban militants, whose leader Mullah Fazlullah operates across the border in Afghanistan, and still scouts the area, sending us intimidating messages. Therefore, we keep mum about the Taliban and Malala Yousafzai and remain focused on our educational activities.”
Meeting the girls of Presentation Convent Sangota was inspirational. It re-affirmed my belief in the resilience of human spirit to overcome adversity and also opened my eyes to the insatiable quest of the people of Swat to educate their daughters. But to defeat the Taliban on the ideological front, the meta- narrative of Pakistani society, which is built on the so-called ideology of Pakistan, also needs to change state by state.