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On education

Cultural beliefs and practices that seem to survive the course of time and produce a kind of ambivalence, if not outright opposition, with regard to accessibility of education

On education
Thriving education system. — Photo by Rahat Dar

The horror that visited the APS, Peshawar, on 16 December 2014, brought many disturbing things with it. One of them was the realisation of the fact that the attackers were particularly determined that the kind of education being imparted in that and other such schools deserves to be completely destroyed. They were obviously brainwashed by their madrassa teachers after having been abducted, bought or lured into slavery. But the other side of the coin is the dangerous fact that many young boys are mindlessly abandoned by society and made available to the heavily funded and armed religious madrassas that recycle them into hard-core fanatics and, in some cases, human bombs.

Why does Pakistani society abandon a large number of their youth to be made canon-fodder which in turn destroys the society itself?

In other words, why do we as a whole seem to have a problem with what Malala Yousufzai stands for: namely, quality education for every male and female child in the country? Now, please don’t delude yourself with individual examples like you and your aunt. True, respected individuals like Pervez Hoodbhoy and Asma Jahangir — and those who agree with these public intellectuals’ point of view — as well as an uncertain number of young students are expressing their support to the critical cause of girls’ education in Pakistan. But, even using the extraordinary deftness achieved by our nation in the fine art of denial, it is hard to wish away the reality. Our opinion-makers and political as well as cultural decision-makers — those who have a firm grip on the mainstream thinking (or lack of it) — seem to have something against the seemingly simple agenda of enabling every child to access modern education.

In his article titled “Why does MalalaYusufzai’s Nobel bother so many on the left?” Dr. Hoodbhoy has rightly pointed out and tried to solve the puzzle as to why, when commenting on Malala, the ‘leftist liberals’ choose not to mention what her attackers actually stand for.

Apart from what goes around under the guise of ‘anti-Americanism’ — which Manzoor Ejaz has aptly termed as the ‘opiate of the people’ today — there are some cultural beliefs and practices that seem to survive the course of time and produce a kind of ambivalence, if not outright opposition, with regard to accessibility of education — and hence progress for the masses, especially women. These, to my mind, are worth looking at in their historical and social context.

“I saw about seventy-five boys studying in the courtyard of the mosque near which you want to build your madrassa. Considering their social class and background, teaching English to these boys will bring no good at all.”

Let’s begin with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) who is justly regarded as the pioneer of modern education for the male progeny of a certain class of Muslims (Shurafa) in North India, and rightly respected by the beneficiaries of his drive to establish what developed into the Aligarh Muslim University.

When invited to inaugurate the Madrassa Anjuman-e Islamia at Bareily, Sir Syed made the following remarks in reply to his hosts’ address:

“In your address you have said that you are not averse to teaching other nations’ sciences to your students. Perhaps what you mean by this is the teaching of English. But I would say that it’s a big mistake to think of teaching English in a madrassa such as yours. No doubt our nation badly needs the education of English language and English forms of knowledge. It is a must for the sardars and sharifs of our nation to give a high-level education to their children. No one is more enthusiastic than myself to support and wish for the promotion of English education and sciences among Muslims. But everything needs to be done in a proper way. I saw about seventy-five boys studying in the courtyard of the mosque near which you want to build your madrassa. Considering the social class and background to which they belong, teaching English to these boys will bring no good at all. It is more useful, for them and for the country, if they are kept engaged in the old type of education.

“The right thing to do for you is to try and teach them some basic reading and writing, and necessary arithmetic; a few tracts should be taught to them so that they become conversant in the everyday issues of namaz and roza and the simple articles of the Muslim faith.”

As for the education of girls (even of the shurafa — high caste — background) Sir Syed had this to say:

“But I emphatically call upon the Ashraaf to come together and arrange for the education of their girls in a way that is in line with the education of the past era. No man of a sharif family can think of giving education to his daughter which would enable her to become a signaler in the telegraph office or a stamping clerk in the post office.”

It is a historical fact that the institution he founded later opened its doors to not only boys of a non-shurafa background but also girls. It may also be because the younger generations of the class for whose benefit Sir Syed launched his modernisation campaign appears to have found newer, better avenues such as expensive private or even foreign educational institutions. A similar kind of transformation can be observed in Pakistani public universities, e.g. the University of Karachi, where now few parents from the ‘elite’ classes like to send their young ones to study.

Nevertheless, can we say with honesty that the kind of thinking apparent from the two quotations from Sir Syed’s speeches has ceased to influence our policies and actions as a nation? I can’t, because the way public and private money is spent on education tells quite a different story. Mismanagement and ineffectiveness of government schools, which is discussed all the time, shows the lack of serious will on the part of the makers and implementers of public sector policy for the education of the poor, non-shurafa classes. In many cases, a total absence of government schools of any standard leaves them little choice except to enroll in a madrassa.

Unlike most sellers of school or higher education of a more or less acceptable quality at an exorbitant price — which alone is enough to keep the riff-raff excluded — Sir Syed raised funds for his modernising initiative through public donations or philanthropy. Why in a country the founding of which is commonly said to be a logical development of the ‘national’ consciousness Sir Syed helped create, such private funds raised for the development of education through philanthropy (and that is quite a lot of money) are almost invariably spent on madrassa education? Is it that the citizens who donate money for madrassas don’t believe in giving modern education to young Pakistanis? Maybe, but in most cases they send their own children to expensive local and foreign schools. Seems like a puzzle, doesn’t it?

Some time back I came across a short Urdu article written 84 years ago by Hameed Ahmed Khan (1903-1974), who was a renowned professor and head of the University of the Punjab. Published in the literary journal “Humayun”, Lahore, in the early 1930s, it was titled “Lafz Sharifzada ka Asal Mafhoom” (The true meaning of the word sharifzada). He says;

“In its original and eternal literal sense, the word means a person of the right, or good lineage; in the same way that a dog or a horse is considered of a high pedigree.

“Since those we call upper classes are of a better, purer lineage than the lower classes, they maintain in their heart the true meaning of the word and the high claims based on that lineage, but they feel afraid of expressing it to the public and therefore resort to being hypocritical about it…

“The lower classes, in fact all classes, need to learn that every bad habit and each chronic disease is hereditary, and, depending on the purity or otherwise of one’s lineage, the entire system of human body and soul can develop, in the course of generations, either high or low characteristics, to the extent that the difference between a person from a high caste and another from a low caste (however hard you work on educating them) can be exactly like a dog of a high pedigree and a common stray dog of a dubious origin. The knowledge of this great reality must inform and guide the education of our youth and all actions of our nation.”

So much for the equality of all classes of people as to their right of access to education! As for our deep seated ideas about the lesser gender, the little said the better.

Can we seriously assume that the good professor — and his worthy colleagues — had completely gotten rid of these brilliant traditional guiding principles when they were laying the foundations of the new country’s education system?

And, are we not missing something while trying to fathom the motivation and commitment of those who have systematically blown up schools and banned female education in Swat, and attacked Malala, before the deadlier and ghastlier attack on the Peshawar school? Our outright support to the prevalence of two different kinds of education for two different categories of people may have made it easier for the handlers of terrorists to convince them of the destructive ideology which demands the ‘modern’ or ‘quality’ education to the lucky ones to be wiped out as it represents not just inequality and injustice but also infidelity and apostasy.

A few days before the massacre of students in the Peshawar school , the same (non-state) actors had brought out and distributed a five-page pamphlet, one day after Malala Yousufzai received her shared Nobel Peace Prize, warning people of the coming times when many Malalas would be shot and killed for — guess what — blasphemy.

Ajmal Kamal

Ajmal Kamal
The author edits and publishes Aaj, an Urdu quarterly journal, from Karachi and runs a small publishing house and bookshop. He translates and occasionally writes for English and Urdu publications.

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