It was not easy for Zainab to sift through complicated foreign policy notes and history books behind locked doors and the iron-grilled windows.
It got even harder when other women inmates engaged in raucous catfights, or when children threw tantrums.
Yet, despite all odds, the 26-year-old accomplished what no one expected her to – she became the first female inmate at Karachi’s jail for women to attain a master’s degree.
“I was going to apply for admission to a master’s programme at Karachi University before I was imprisoned,” says Zainab, a striking, tall figure dressed in black. “Even when I came here, I didn’t want to be like the other prisoners, depressed and numb.”
Today, she certainly isn’t depressed. The happiness from the news delivered to her by the superintendent just last Wednesday, that she had passed – in first division, no less – her two year graduate programme in international relations, still lingers on.
“I couldn’t stop crying when Madam [the superintendent] told me. I couldn’t believe it,” she says, beaming.
There was no customary distribution of sweets or hugs from family members, but Zainab is proud of herself, nonetheless.
Zainab faces 25 years of imprisonment after being convicted in 2008 of murder and kidnapping for ransom. Her husband, the main accused, has been awarded the death sentence. The couple has appealed to the Sindh High Court and have yet to hear back.
She does not want to talk too much about her case. Instead, she speaks enthusiastically about her study habits.
“I would remain awake for the entire night, and sleep only in the afternoons,” she says breathlessly. This routine would continue for three months before the examinations.
Zainab says she chose international relations so she could study on her own. A teacher working for a non-governmental organization continued to help her with notes and books.
The inmate says she loved readings focused on the United Nations, the history of the Middle East, and Kashmir during partition most of all.
Even the jail authorities made exemptions for her. Publications like the Akhbar e Jahan and Jang would be allowed in, and no one would dare change the channel during Hamid Mir’s show.
When asked about her motivation, her source of strength, Zainab speaks about her family.
“I was raised in a family where education was given top priority,” she says excitedly, her eyes sparkling. “Two of my sisters have done their masters in economics, and the other two have bachelor degrees. I also earned my bachelor’s degree from PECHS Girls College.”
Her childhood days seem to have left quite an impression on her. She remembers the times she would study with her siblings. Their mother would tutor them, leaving no need for external tuitions. Later on, Zainab even worked as a supervisor in a market consulting agency and took English language courses.
Although being in jail has affected her once lively personality, Zainab remains strong and has resolved to study further. She now wants to undertake an LLB degree and become a lawyer.
I am inspired by lawyers, seeing them on the television and the news. And I bug my lawyer a lot,” she says.
Because of her education, Zainab is often exempted from hard labor and helps with work in the jail office. She also teaches other inmates basic computer skills.
“People ask me how I managed to study and keep myself busy. I tell them that I am strong willed,” says Zainab. “My husband, who has only done his inter, doesn’t listen to me when I tell him to study. Education is so important. When I get out, it will be the only skill that may save me from ridicule.”
Sheeba Shah, the superintendent at the women’s jail, says she is extremely proud of Zainab.
“My focus is always on education. Even if a woman inmate comes in for a single day, I want her to learn something,” she says.
In the same vein, Arshad Azmi, the examination controller at KU, concurs. “It is a pleasure for us when prisoners are interested in studying.”
Despite facing adversity on a daily basis – in almost every sphere – women across the country continue to do what they can, where they can. In Karachi alone, over 442 women have been killed by their relatives in eight years. Around 453 were murdered by unidentified people, 108 were burnt to death. And yet, even amid the deafening clamour and the mind-numbing chaos, Pakistani women have scaled new heights – literally and metaphorically. As a nation, we must analyse the problems women face. We must recognise their accomplishments. And, in this way, we must realise that it’s not time to give up just yet
Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2013.