At the same time that two Pakistani/Pakistani-origin women were being feted for their extraordinary achievements, a third was so despondent regarding the road blocks in her path to an education that she was taking her own life.
Yes, this is a tragic paradox called Pakistan. Reminiscent of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, such extremes of fortune and fate are nearly an everyday occurrence in this land of the pure. God knows who was culpable in this particular instance but each one of us must bear the cross for the general state of affairs.
Where bad news has become the norm rather than the exception, the news that Pakistan-born astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala was part of a team of scientists who identified/detected gravitational waves and verified what Einstein propounded in his Theory of Relativity 100 years ago was readily hailed by most Pakistanis with considerable pride.
That a young girl, who battled so many challenges as she tried to seek an education, should kill herself is a damning indictment of the system.
It didn’t matter that Dr Mavalvala left Karachi, where she was born and where she attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary, and migrated as a teenager along with her family before graduating from Wellesley College, US, and then going on to do her post-graduation and doctorate from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she currently teaches, and does her research.
She herself acknowledged the role of her physics teacher at her Karachi school in giving her every opportunity to use the lab and experiment as and when she deemed fit. This furthered her curiosity. Her love of astronomy is also said to have its roots in the night sky over the city where she says she used to go up on the roof her block of flats and observe the stars for hours.
Frankly speaking, it is just as well she went abroad when she did as the academic environment at some of the institutions she was privileged to attend must have fired up her appetite for scientific discovery. She must have received mentoring and encouragement. And she continued unhindered, without facing any discrimination despite making certain personal choices and having preferences which could easily have singled her out in Pakistan and made her a target of the bigots and haters, her brilliance notwithstanding.
That so many Pakistanis moved quickly to express ownership of and take pride in her achievement as a scientist was pleasing as it was reassuring, for we have a terrible track record of ambivalence towards our heroes such as Dr Abdus Salam. And even the other Nobel Laureate, the teenager, Malala Yousafzai.
It was an equally pleasing sight to see Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on national television being received by the prime minister at his official residence in the capital where the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker secured a pledge from Nawaz Sharif that the laws on ‘honour killing’ would be toughened so all loopholes are excised from them.
If realised, this pledge would be a big step forward as under the existing laws, most murderers who commit their bloody crime in the name of ‘honour’ are able to avoid punishment and go scot-free. To emphasise his commitment to the cause, Mr Sharif also announced that Ms Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary on the issue, which has been nominated for an Oscar, would be screened first at the Prime Minister’s House.
Ms Obaid-Chinoy won an Academy Award in 2012 for her documentary on acid attack survivors and their rehabilitation. Ms Obaid-Chinoy and Dr Mavlavala are on a large and illustrious list of Pakistani women who have battled against the odds at home, excelled in their fields, and brought accolades to the country.
No matter how long this list may be, it is equally true that for every woman who succeeds here, there must be hundreds and hundreds whose ambitions and desires whether educational, professional or in any other field remain unfulfilled and often cruelly so. Saqiba Kakar, a 17-year-old college student, from Muslim Bagh is — was — one of them. Last June, she travelled over 100 kilometres to the provincial capital of Quetta to demonstrate with about a dozen other students from her girls’ college demanding that their institution be given teachers so they could complete their education.
This demonstration was covered, among others, by DawnNews whose archive footage shows an articulate Saqiba, clad in a burqa and hijab, demanding that their right to education be respected. Most of rural Balochistan is conservative but the Pakhtun-dominated Zhob district more so.
The footage broke my heart and lifted my spirits at the same time. These girls, covered in chaddar/burqa from head to toe, had come all this distance, obviously supported by their families so as to secure the posting of teachers at their college, such was their desire and commitment to education.
Since the death of Saqiba, who wasn’t allowed to sit for her board exams and who took her life last week apparently in utter despair, is the subject of a Balochistan government inquiry, I wouldn’t want to go into the specifics of why this happened.
Know more: No FIR yet in girl’s suicide case
We’ll wait for the inquiry report to be able to say with certainty what happened. Her family does allege that the college principal angered by Saqiba’s decision not to apologise for demonstrating against the administration withheld her examination form, citing inadequate attendance at lessons.
Whatever the inquiry reveals, that a young girl, who must have battled so many usually insurmountable challenges, to seek an education in a remote part of the country was so heartbroken that she killed herself, leaving ostensibly a note lamenting her failure to study further is a slap in all our faces.
How will we react? If I try to answer honestly I am filled with sadness. For the next few days the media will keep the issue alive. Then we’ll move on to the next story and that’ll be that. We’d have buried another daughter and have moved on. Yes, that’s what I think will happen. It always does.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2016