TALL men guard the Karachi central jail’s gate for women as two A-Level students scurry in carrying a load of books. They write their names down in a register and make their way over to the assistant superintendent’s office.
A smartly dressed female officer helps them with the books as the girls go over what they have to do.
Perbhaat Khowaja and her friend Shirin Fatima have been regular visitors at the women’s jail for the last couple of weeks. They have been trying to set up a small library for the female inmates and their children.
The 18-year-olds volunteer with the helper’s society at school and want to do a project by themselves before they start applying for college.
“We wanted to do something extra as the school’s society limits us to NGOs and certain areas. I really wanted to do something useful with books and Perbhaat wanted to work with jails,” explained Shirin.
“We decided to set up a library for inmates here. We came here, got a room, painted the walls and gathered lots of books — ranging from English grammar, literature, self-help, fairy tales and economics,” she added.
The idea, she told Dawn, was to create a safe space for female inmates and their children. At the moment there are 122 women and 20 children behind bars.
“We love books. They are an essential part of growing. These children don’t have access to education and we thought these books might help,” she said.
The prison currently holds short lessons for the inmates on language, computer studies, cosmetology and several other subjects.
Perbhaat, who likes novels and is a great Harry Potter fan, said “we have collected more than 250 books for women and hope to get more”.
“Our school starts in the first week of August and we plan on holding a book drive to get more reading material,” she added.
Humaira, the prison’s assistant superintendent, said the library would help women pass their time and learn new things.
“I believe this will benefit most women we have here. We are teaching them basics such as the English alphabet, maths and science,” she told Dawn.
Most women here, she added, enjoy reading Urdu digests, magazines, religious books and novels.
Humaira, who has previously worked at the prison in Hyderabad, said the inmates need a good distraction and books would certainly help.
“These women just want to go back to their families. Who doesn’t?”
While taking a round of the prison, Sindh Prisons IG Nusrat Mangan and former Sindh IG A.D. Khowaja asked women what they preferred reading. Some inmates replied that they would like to read Urdu or Sindhi books while others said they enjoyed Maulana Rumi.
Inaugurating the library on Tuesday, Mr Mangan promised that his children would donate 100 books. Both police officers also said that they would help improve the library with better shelves and an airconditioner.
“You have planted a seed here, we will water it,” said Mr Mangan, adding that this was a good step for women prisoners..
Sajida, an inmate who was helping the girls, said she was quite pleased with the reading room as it was a little space for her and others to enjoy and relax.
“When we started this project we were a little sceptical. People started making fun of us — even my mother laughed for a good hour before taking me seriously,” said Perbhaat.
In order to collect funds for their project, the girls set up an account, but it was eventually taken off. They managed to collect $70, some friends also donated to their cause, as did a school alumnus.
“The day we came here I think the prison staff was divided. Some people were very good to us while others made fun of the colour of the curtains and walls,” they said.
“Initially we were a little scared. One day a random inmate came up to us and didn’t say anything. We saw lawyers come in and talk to these women and would figure out what they were in for…but they were always good to us so we didn’t ask anyone about their past,” they said.
“We did consider what to do in case a fight broke out in the library because we once saw two women fight over a piece of paper and it did not look good,” they added.
The girls aim to work together again and set up more libraries in the city. Their next stop is an orphanage.
Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2018