The shooting of teenage blogger Malala Yousafzai was just the tip of the iceberg. Extremists are taking aim at all girls schools of northwest Pakistan. What does the Taliban fear?
MASHO GAGGAR - The freezing cold pierces through her long veil, her skinny body and bare feet exposed to the wintry elements. Crouching in order to avoid sitting on the wet ground, seven-year-old Samrin focuses on today’s lesson, her open textbook sitting in the dirt.
No classroom, no chairs, and no blackboard for this Pakistani schoolgirl: In the northwest village of Masho Gaggar, the lessons are taught outside, on dirty and dusty jute bags. Since her public primary school was bombed by the Taliban, Samrin and her classmates have been learning in the schoolyard of the village’s other overcrowded school.
Over the past few years, more than 1,200 schools in this remote region have been targeted by the Islamic rebels, mostly aimed at keeping girl students away. Recently, boys’ schools have also been under fire: five were destroyed in two days’ time early March.
The cruelty of the Pakistani Taliban, longtime allies of al-Qaeda, is a secret to no one. In an infamous October 2012 attack, the terrorist group shot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the head as she returned home from school, as punishment for her efforts to develop girls' education. Yousafzai survived, and her case turned her into an international icon, and shined attention on the cause of female education in Pakistan.
Although Pakistani President Ali Asif Zardari has promised to raise a $10 million “Malala Fund” to promote girl schooling around the world, his own country is continuing to disregard the state of its schools.
Indeed, Samrin’s 150 classmates –- just like the tens of thousands of other pupils living in this region -- have been suffering for two years now. On that recent blustery cold day, the girls try to remain active and hold themselves tight to keep warm. Their cheeks are red, even crackled.
In the district of Badaber, about nine miles away from Peshawar, the attacks against the schools are growing more frequent. This part of the country is already one of the least developed and the most vulnerable to terrorism. Given its location -- close to Afghanistan and al-Qaeda strongholds -- the Taliban can easily evade government troops.
The schools, protected by a single warden, are easy targets. Teaching in these conditions is nothing short of heroic. “My hands are sore from the letters I keep writing to the government,” declares 40-year-old teacher Riasat Begum from Masho Gaggar.
Since the previous school is now a pile of rubble, she teaches all the subjects outside, to six different classes. “It’s pathetic. Most of the girls get sick because of the cold, and we have no choice but to send them home. The constant noise isn’t helping their concentration either.”
The numbers are appalling. Half of Pakistan’s population is illiterate. According to the United Nations, it ranks next-to-last in the world in terms of educating its children, with between five and seven million without a school.
In 2010, less than 10% of the budget was devoted to education; in comparison, the army is granted twice that budget, according to the World Bank. Many schools are financed by foreign donors.
The gap continues to widen between the students of westernized children bound to study in the best schools in English to get qualified jobs, and the rest of the country, condemned to learn in terrible conditions. Even worse: in some places, the Islamists are recruiting kamikazes right outside the schools.
American drones and Pakistani army offensives managed to dislodge the Taliban from several of their bases in the tribal areas. They have since moved closer to Peshawar and other urban cores. “The attacks have been more and more frequent since last year, Peshawar is more becoming a dangerous place to live,” says Khadim Hussain from the NGO Baacha Khan Trust, struggling for girl education.
Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesman of the Pakistani Taliban, was reached by telephone. This is his creed: “These schools are spreading non-Islamic, anti-Islamic and non-religious ideologies,” he declares. “They are our enemies’ tool to pervert our society.”
The Taliban are now threatening the capital itself -- starting with its schools. In May 2012, two explosions destroyed part of the school of Chandi Korona, near Nowshera, two hours away from Islamabad. Now the 250 schoolgirls, shining in their crimson-red veiled uniform, study outside every morning, or in the middle of the ruins, under a roof that may or may not collapse. “We had a hard time convincing the parents to let them come after the bombing, but now they’d rather keep them home because of this hazard of a school,” says professor Nehaz Pervez.
The government is silent on the matter. “The money is never wired on time and the teachers often won’t take their chances in these schools,” observed Khadim Hussain. The government actually promised to do two things after the Malala scandal: grant 1.5 euro ($1.9) to 3 million children from destitute family attending school, and build 16 “Malala schools”. These are insufficient measures given the alarming situation of the educational system. Even outside the war-stricken northwestern region, 60% of the schools don’t have electricity and 34% lack drinkable water.
The powerful chief of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Judge Iftikhar Chaudhry, slammed his gavel. On Feb. 11, he ordered an inquiry to be made on the hundreds of “ghost schools” receiving funding, although no one works there. He accused the government of “turning schools into stables and shelters for animals.”
Finally, in November, the local government took action: 35 public schools -- 25 of which were girls’ schools -- in 32 villages of the Multan region (Punjab) were “freed” from their illegal residents, i.e. farmers housed by the rich landlords, for more than 15 years in some cases. According to the locals, the professors were cashing their salaries without giving any lessons, they weren’t even protesting against illegal occupants.
No one expects education to be a priority, during the presidential and parliamentary election campaign of May 2013, given the corruption, energy, and terrorism issues and the omnipresent crisis. Philanthropist and ex-cricket star Imran Khan is the only one who promised to take “emergency” measures: doubling the share of education in the GDP, hiring a million teachers and favoring feminine education.
Given the delicate situation, what pushed teacher Riasit Begum to carry on, since her school had recently been threatened by the extremists? “If educated women like us are forced to stay home and do nothing, what will happen to the girls later in life? They will get married and stay locked up in their houses too.”
It’s 1 p.m., and the school of Masho Gaggar is closing. The youngest students are four, and rush outside, quickly followed by the noise of fabric brushing by, and hushed voices: the 11-year-old classmates are all wearing their white burqas and vanish in the streets, like daytime ghosts.