Zakia Sarwar’s zest for work has not diminished with the years. Having had her arm in a sling after a complicated surgery recently, she takes it in her stride travelling to cities with a devil-may-care attitude towards pain or an accidental push. A woman who feels that time should not be wasted and that everything is achievable if one puts their heart in to it, she continues to be involved with a project that is very close to her.
Training teachers how to teach English effectively to students, her project Spelt (Society of Pakistani English Language Teachers) came into being in 1984 and to date, the academic sessions held every last Saturday of the month, excluding the Saturday Benazir died, have continued regularly, claims Sarwar proudly. It is a free workshop for teachers providing them a forum for professional development. Besides this, conferences are held every year.
For Sarwar, a teacher is the key figure in education and the model he or she provides can be an inspiration for learners. Therefore teacher education should be given primary importance if a country is to progress by producing balanced children. It is a fast-changing world and children require handling in a different way compared to the past. To give teachers strategies further than just content is the only way to teach youngsters to become good human beings of the future.
Born in 1939 in a small town in Partapgarh, India, Sarwar had just taken her matriculation exam when she migrated with her family to Lahore in 1954. It was a trauma for her to leave her home and friends.
Lahore had a different atmosphere compared to the city she had left. Her brother Zawwar Hasan, a sports journalist knew Faiz, and she met Alys his wife, whom she considers her spiritual mother. Alys Faiz looked after the Young Readers League, a weekly magazine of Pakistan Times and encouraged her to write for newspapers and introduced her to Begum Jalil Asghar who had started an NGO which helped disadvantaged children to study. Sarwar would cycle to their locality to teach them schoolwork and cleanliness.
A spunky young woman, she procured third position in BA Honours in 1959 and also won many trophies as a debater when she was a student in Lahore College and the Government College, Lahore. Her circle in college included Kishwar Naheed, Saleema Hashmi and Syeda Arifa Zehra who later excelled in their respective fields. Sarwar did her masters in English literature from the Government College where the environment was very academic, encouraging extracurricular activities as well. She was blessed with good teachers.
During her college days when Faiz was the director of the Arts Council Lahore, she did a play Badshahat ka khatama, a short story by Manto, for his first death anniversary, acting opposite Kamal Ahmad Rizvi — both performing for the first time. She had also joined the Punjab Women’s Guard where she learnt horse riding and also wrote newspaper articles.
In those days an appointment letter came to one’s home immediately after the MA results were declared. Thus a teaching career was foisted on Sarwar which soon became a labour of love. Her first posting as a lecturer was in Gujranwala. Her parents were enlightened and allowed her to teach in another city but as her brother decided to go to Karachi in 1961, she had to pack up and go with the family.
Sarwar joined Sir Syed Girls College in the same year, a progressive, well-known institution then in which Faiz, Habib Jalib, Ismet Chugtai, Kaifi Azmi, Faraz, Suroor Barabankvi and other writers would come to give lectures. She introduced an enterprising project in which students did stitching and embroidery to earn money so as to nurture in them the dignity of labour.
In 1962 she got married to Dr Mohammad Sarwar. She left service temporarily to give time to her young children Beena, Sehba and Salman. She rejoined teaching again in 1978.
At the end of Ayub’s era when colleges were closed for nearly nine months due to the law and order situation, teachers started an agitation against the closure as salaries had been stopped and their families were facing a crisis. Spearheaded by Anita Ghulam Ali, they first appealed to the government but when that didn’t work the teachers first went on a 48-hour hunger strike, with Zakia Sarwar, Alia Imam and two male teachers in the initial batch.
The result was that the successful movement ended with the colleges being nationalised during Bhutto’s era, which in hindsight Sarwar says did not prove to be good. Her son Salman was just a year old during the agitation but her husband supported her all the way.
It was during her years in Women’s College, Frere Road, that Sarwar’s method of teaching changed. In her student days she was inspired by her teacher Dr Pervin Ali in Lahore College who took a lot of interest in her students, giving them time when they needed it. She tried to emulate her when she became a teacher, giving her students a lot of attention and also trying to solve their various problems.
With time, from 40 students her class swelled to 130 which made teaching difficult as it was not easy to reach out to students and she nearly quit her job in 1982. Her sister encouraged her to do a diploma course in English as a foreign language from Sydney University, Australia. That was the turning point in her life and she came back enthused with new ideas, changing her teaching strategies. Sarwar experimented by taking a voluntary class with her students. They responded well, proving that if students’ needs were met and they were encouraged and taught properly, they were willing to learn.
In 1983 a conference was held by University Grants Commission in Islamabad, the first English Language Teaching (ELT) conference ever held in Pakistan. The next year, the conference was held again and the same, like-minded people such as Aneesa Mumtaz, Abbas Hussain, Fauzia Shamim and herself, decided that they should meet every month without the government’s help. So Spelt came into being in 1984, with its academic sessions providing teachers with opportunities for networking and professional growth.
Sarwar says that children should have a clear concept of their own language first, and a second language should have proper teaching methods, otherwise the child cannot learn properly. Young children, she emphasises, are capable of learning more than one language simultaneously provided the teaching techniques, materials and models for learning are correct. “The reason that we are in a bad state, language-wise, is because the teachers are not trained on methodology techniques and hence we have poor results, as there is no teaching efficiency. I spoke English and Urdu well at a young age because I was taught properly,” Sarwar explains.
The British Council has been a partner with Spelt and has done several training projects with it. However, there are very few professional development opportunities for teachers now especially as the British Council and the American Centre libraries have now closed down. They helped teachers and students tremendously in teaching and learning.
Sarwar has also been the chair of English as a Foreign Language Interest Section (ESL-IS) and chair of Global Professional Issues Committee and is a currently member of the publications committee of Teachers of English Speakers of Other Language (TESOL). She has co-authored books on the subject and written numerous articles in international publications and teachers guides and manuals.
She emphasises there are professional organisations in countries around the world which do similar work and their governments support them. Unfortunately, the government here has ignored Spelt’s potential to support teaching, learning and evaluation. Regionally, Spelt is looked up by countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India as a model organisation working with limited resources.
Sarwar’s late husband was a great influence and his encouragement and support helped in her vision to nurture Spelt. He was a former student leader and had great insight into the country’s current issues. He believed in equality of men and women and practiced it and gave her freedom to do whatever she wanted to do. Women are suppressed here and thus can’t utilise their potential fully as they are stifled, Sarwar opines.
Zakia Sarwar has had a happy and fulfilling life and continues enjoying it to this day. She is very proud of her three children. Her dream of nurturing values of integrity, art and culture was instilled in them from a young age and their love for literature, language and spirit to stand up for people’s rights, inherited from both the parents, have paid off, she says glowingly.