THE Black Lives Matter movement in the US has not only triggered global outrage, it has also drawn attention to uncomfortable questions for nations across the world. In Pakistan, for instance, ‘colourism’ and ‘anti-blackness’ are deeply entrenched in the national consciousness though this remains largely unacknowledged by the general populace. This is unsurprising, considering this is a nation marred by systemic and societal exclusion and prejudice by citizens and towards citizens along every line imaginable — religious, ethnic, class, sectarian, linguistic, gender. It begs the question: how does the average citizen become so exclusionary and parochial when it comes to identity and outlook on the ‘self’ and the ‘other’?

Surely, the complex process of identity development begins at home. Yet, the view of the self is also influenced by schooling conditions. Schools are the official sites providing students with the tools to become fully realised citizens of the community. However, the development of worldviews is often overlooked in classrooms and is instead effectuated through the articulation of ‘norms’ in textbooks that help ‘define’ identity.

In Pakistan, the dominant national narrative, as told in public school textbooks, particularly Pakistan and Social Studies, English and Urdu, places emphasis on a cohesive identity that discourages dissent — with nationalism at the core of identity construction. Perhaps this is done in order to reconcile with a conflicted and fractured past. Yet, such a myopic articulation implicitly means observing any divergence as a threat.

Schools are part of a system permeated by inequality.

A homogenous Muslim Pakistani identity is emphasised by reiterating how Pakistanis are ‘different’ from all the other people in the world. The Grade 9 Pakistan Studies textbook of the Punjab Textbook Board begins with defining commonalities within all Pakistanis in terms of a shared religion (Islam), race (Muslim), residency (Pakistan) and customs (faith-based in nature). More than the extent of the religious content, it is the nature of it that is an issue of debate, since there is a focus on seeing all identities other than Muslim as the ‘other’.

The textbooks, particularly through the subject of history, frequently encompass stories of martyrdom and often glorify war, conveying the resultant need of violence in order to protect the homeland. The Grade 9 English textbook published by same textbook board devotes an entire unit to ‘patriotism’, where patriotism is synonymous with participating in wars.

The Pakistan Studies textbooks for Grade 10 contain details of historical conflicts with nations of other religious denominations, particularly the British (presented as the Christian ‘other’ during the independence struggle, and Indians (presented as the Hindu ‘other’) during the 1965, 1971 and Kargil wars. Consequently, trepidation over the possible dismantling of the Pakistani self is instilled in students, making many of them feel resentful towards outsiders who are seen as threatening their country’s existence.

But this idea of a cohesive identity is not restricted to religion; rather it has been extended to women being regarded as the gendered other through the use of masculinist terms. Take, for instance, the Grade 10 Pakistan Studies textbook of the KP board, which contains a section on a male-dominated society and the following quote: “In Pakistani society, men have a dominant position because they are responsible for the livelihood of the family.”

Gender-biased illustrations can be seen in textbooks in all provinces that depict women as confined to the domestic sphere or to particular types of work roles such as that of a doctor, nurse and tea­c­her and by often referring to females as the ‘mother of’, ‘wife of’ and ‘sister of’ rat­her than giving them their own individual identities. As education is often construc­ted with a predominant male Muslim subject in mind, those not conforming to the idea may be ‘othered’. This construction of a particular form of identity engenders a parochial lens through which to view the world and its citizens.

How do students recognise diversity when identity is constructed on the basis of such exclusionary terms? Schools, students and teachers are clearly part of a system permeated by inequality. The solution requires a refashioning of the collective consciousness at the level of education in terms that are not exclusionary, but accepting of tolerance and coexistence. It is this idea that should guide the development of new curricula and pedagogies — free from nationalistic, exclusionist and sectarian agendas.

At the same time, there is a need for education to teach students to develop a critical view of the ‘self’ and a tolerant view of the ‘other’. This is all the more pertinent at a time when the current government is planning to increase religious content in a uniform national curriculum.

The writer is a PhD candidate at University College London.

Twitter: @laraibniaz91

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2020

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