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Footprints: fear and loathing

Updated September 19, 2017

LAHORE: Shagufta's tuition class is busy studying, the only sound being that of the whirring fan above and the steady hum of the students reading in a low voice. Two of the children are recent school dropouts — brothers Sahil and Sajid — and till they find another school to go to, they will be studying here.

“They were being ostracised in school to the extent that it started to become mental torture for them,” says Shagufta. “They would often either skip school or not go at all. Then their mother took the help of her employer, who requested me to teach them so they don’t waste time while they look for a different school.”

This wasn’t a case of regular bullying. This was religiously motivated. Being the only Christian students in the school, the boys say they felt isolated.

“When the others realised we were different, they openly showed their disgust for us,” says 12-year-old Sajid. “One of them came up to me one day and said, ‘Get out of this school, we don’t want you around here.’ They would never talk to us.”

This is not a one-off case. Discri­mination has been there in schools for decades, it seems.

Nazia, 34, remembers how she dropped out of her school in her small village of Hardai Pind near Sheikhupura. “It was an all-girls school and on every occasion possible they insisted on calling me ‘choorhi’ [pejorative term] and to say bad things about my religion. For this reason I stopped studying and today I can only read a little and write my name.” Nazia says that other Christians in her village also faced the same issue, because they were in a minority. More of them dropped out from school.

The issue has come to the forefront after Sharoon Masih from Vehari was allegedly killed by his classmates. Although new reports say that their fight had been over a cell phone, his parents maintain that he had been bullied because of his religion and was eventually killed because of it.

Sharoon was the unlucky one, says a member of the Christian community.

“There are many Sharoons out there, who luckily survive their ordeals. Most of us are treated the same,” says Wilson*. “Actually, the students mirror what their parents think, and though the problem starts at school, we are never actually left alone even when we grow up. Often, even at my workplace, the Muslim religious groups come and ask me to convert.”

Wilson says that a few days ago, a Christian schoolteacher complained to the head of their community that the manager of her school — an elite one at that — asked her to change her Christian name to a Muslim name so she could ‘fit in better’. “First she wanted us to raise the issue but then she stopped us because she was afraid of losing her job,” he says.

Wilson says that his father was in the armed forces, but that did not stop him from being called a ‘choorha’.

“This is the most common word people use to refer to us,” says John, 75. “Many people believe it isn’t even derogatory. Others think that we are dirty people.”

According to Cecil Chaudhry Jr, executive-director of the National Commission for Peace and Justice (NJCP), one major reason that discrimination may begin from schools is because of the hate material in the textbooks.

“Even 30 years ago, when I was in school, this mindset was there in many people,” he says. “I dread to think what the situation is today. I am sure a lot of children do drop out or change schools because of this.”

Chaudhry says that the history books are the worst, because they seem to depict all atrocities having been committed by non-Muslims, both Hindu and Christian. But then, there is an unjust attitude too, he says, where there are more marks for Islamiyat and less for Ethics — and, schools often do not even teach Ethics.

“Two years ago, a school initiated the subject of Comparative Religions,” he says. But propaganda by a TV anchor forced the programme to be closed down, he adds.

On the other hand, in one of the Christian schools in Lahore, Muslim students are ‘not allowed’ to attend any of the Christmas and Easter celebrations. Even if a Muslim student wants to, he or she cannot attend these celebrations, although no reasons have been given by the school administration.

“I think it’s because some of the parents may have objected, or perhaps the school has taken protective measures before anything happens,” says Ahmed, one of the former students. “It’s sad to think how an atmosphere of harmony can be spoilt in one second.”

While the NCJP has conducted research on textbooks and hate speech in all provinces, there has been no study by anyone of the effect of religious discrimination in schools. With the killing of Sharoon Masih, a fresh wave of fear has washed over many Christian families.

“Before, we used to tell our kids to stay silent and keep a low profile, even change their names a bit,” says Kiran, a parent. “Now, we have no idea how to protect them anymore.”

  • Name changed to protect identity

Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2017