I remember I was in 5th grade when, while narrating one of her stories, an Urdu teacher mentioned how girls are supposed to stay at home and take care of the house and children while men are responsible to go out, earn money and run the financial matters of the house. This happened at a so-called progressive O’level curriculum school in Lahore. Since I came from a home where both my parents worked, I assumed what she said was fiction just like her stories but as I grew up I realised the consequences of her statement. At an impressionable age of 10, she was forcing her opinions and ideas on both young girls and boys who would grow up thinking like her too. She was denying children the right to become unique individuals and was forcing traditional gender roles on them, which are often oppressive.
Fast forward a decade and a half and it is unfortunate to know that not much has changed. Our schools, curriculums, teachers and policymakers are often still found forcing their opinions on children and the youth, denying them the right to individuality. This Tuesday evening, I got to hear something that reminded me of the 5th grade incident. Punjab Higher Education Minister Syed Raza Ali Gillani announced that government institutions would allot five marks to each of the hijab-wearing female students in a bid to promote the practice. Without any surprise, there was immediate backlash on the news until the Punjab government denied the reports of the news. The denial came right after the mainstream media highlighted the news that female students would receive five marks for wearing hijab.
The absurdity of the situation increased when the minister went on to say that it is a proposal and no incentive has been given yet. The backlash received on the news included Pakistan Peoples Party leader Aseefa Bhutto Zardari’s comment who disapproved Punjab Higher Education Minister Raza Ali Gillani’s announcement of awarding five extra marks to women wearing Hijab in college. She questioned the decision by asking, what boys will do in such a scenario. In her tweet, she also questioned what students from minorities would do about it. “Why does wearing a Hijab impact grades/marks?” she tweeted.
In two lines, she has summarised everything that is wrong with the policy and many other decisions that force religion on our people. Her backlash and that of the others was completely valid because there is more than one thing that is wrong with this proposal. Not only does this policy show that there is no place for minorities and religious differences in the eyes of the policymakers but it also demonstrates that there is no area for individuality and individual growth either.
This unfair policy creates inequality too. It is unfair for girls who don’t feel comfortable in covering their head. It is unfair for girls who come from religious minorities that don’t require girls to cover their heads. It is unfair for boys also who would have to study harder to get those extra five marks. The policy creates an unequal merit system, which is a challenge that our educational system has been trying to overcome for years.
Educational institutions are safe havens where students go to learn and build their own individual image of the world at large. And that is what they should be. They should not be treated like a stage to indoctrinate young minds about a certain perception. Instead, they should be open spaces for learning and development where young children come and build their own idea of the world around them. Early educational life should be a phase where children develop into unique individuals and decide the kind of lives they want to lead.
The fact that the minister announced this hijab policy on Tuesday evening shows Pakistan as a confused nation. In the morning our Prime Minister announced the celebration of Holi and our acceptance towards minorities, other cultures and religions and in the evening a minister forced his religious opinions on young students. In the morning, our Prime Minister said that religion does not force any individual to do anything while giving a message of tolerance and inclusiveness and in the evening the minister did the precise opposite. This incident should be a learning opportunity for our government to align with each other on their narrative and policies in the future.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 21st, 2017.