Karachi’s balmy weekend evenings have become special for middle-aged Uzma and her teenage daughter. Their monotonous routine has finally been broken.
Past the narrow alleys of the low-income Martin Quarters settlement, they walk away from their house chores, securing their burqas from getting soiled as they jump over puddles of dirty, stagnant water, sharing a laugh or two but always cautious to not attract unwanted male attention. In a few minutes from their humble abode, they reach Baghdadi Masjid for their weekly English language class for beginners.
They aren’t the only ones there. Over 1,200 students are currently attending regular academic sessions for classes from grade 1-10. There are also students who have separately enrolled for computer and Persian, Turkish, and Arabic language classes scheduled on weekends — all free of cost — supervised by quality academic faculty.
It has just been a few months since this philanthropic project kicked off but, to an observer aware of the social dynamics of the area, the hustle and bustle of young students has already started making subtle changes in the culture of the area that was once rife with political and sectarian tensions.
It all actually started after Partition, when the late Allama Riaz Soharwardi, an Islamic scholar, arrived with his kin from India and laid the foundation of a mosque right in the heart of the Mohajir-dominated settlement. Within the course of time, the mosque also introduced a madressah as its extension.
A philanthropic project in a low-income area in Karachi is changing the role and perception of the mosque as a community learning centre. It could be a model for other seminaries to follow
Seventy years down the line, his grandson, Najam Soharwardi, has now introduced a philanthropic programme as ‘Off The School’.
“Two out of three students here are girls,” says Najam, a journalist and a Chevening scholar, who returned home after completing his postgraduate in religion and law from the University of Westminster.
“Along with the regular academic courses, we have also started web development, graphic designing and programming classes. This is more like a community learning center. The main idea is to give quality education and a learning environment to those who have financial constraints.”
Almost a third of Pakistan’s population lives in poverty. Around 22.6 million children do not go to school, and half of the population, including two-thirds of women, cannot read or write. The Economic Survey 2020-21 reveals that the literacy rate in the country remains stagnant at 60 percent and education-related expenditures witnessed a 29.6 percent decrease in 2019-20. But for Najam, the ‘education crisis’ is not just limited to these staggering stats — it goes beyond that.
“Education is now a social justice issue in this country,” he says. “Today, we are producing hundreds of thousands of students from government and private institutions and madressahs all over the country, but they aren’t part of the knowledge economy, because of their limited skill sets.
“Ironically, this conundrum is not being faced by everyone. We also have schools that are as good as any quality foreign academic institution, but with access for only a few privileged. The question is, why can’t the majority avail the same right to quality education? Why are parents deprived of a good education for their children just because they can’t afford to pay a 40,000 rupees monthly school fee? The disparity is real and embarrassing.”
Just as Najam’s pitch begins to rise with every word he speaks, an unexpected knock at his office door interjects. It is Uzma. Leaving her daughter in the classroom, she has come to get the details of an upcoming girls-only course, expected to start next month. After a few formal greetings and promising to join her in some minutes, Najam requests her to sit in the waiting area. She agrees, more out of courtesy than willingness.
Mosharraf Zaidi, Senior Fellow at Tabadlab — a think tank and advisory services firm in Islamabad that advises national and multinational firms and government institutions — believes that the intensity of the contemporary educational crisis in Pakistan can be defined by its multiple cleavage points, such as class, gender, and linguistics (fluency in English).
“Drop-out numbers for girls at the middle school level are quite high,” says Zaidi. “The society and global context favour economics agents that are fluent in English, and the absence of fluency is a massive obstacle in economic and upward social mobility. There is an urgent need to mainstream all segments of the society, especially the religious circle.”
In a bid to cater to this particular need, Najam, being a religious community leader because of his lineage, has introduced programmes for madressah students, to facilitate their entry in the contemporary job market. Along with regular school, he has also introduced multiple fast-track foundation programmes to prepare students for the board exams, a grooming programme that focuses on the personality building of passing-out students, and language and computer courses, to give them digital proficiency.
“This entire project is like a godsend for the parents,” says Muhammad Umar, city editor of an English daily, teaching the English-language-for-beginners course. “They value this opportunity as they are now able to give something to their children which they couldn’t earlier because of affordability.”
But the key question here remains: is the project sustainable? For Najam, it is.
He believes that his hired faculty will bring about the desired academic results and his project will become a model for other seminaries to follow. He calls it his first step to challenge the ‘state’s elite capture.’
“While seminaries are not to be blamed for the elite capture, they could do a lot more to challenge it, given the spaces and power they have all over the country,” says Najam. “Rather than empowering communities, our clergy is more focused on making cult figures and expressing outrage on things as trivial as a photoshoot inside mosques,” he sighs with frustration.
“We are all guns blazing on any exercise of individual liberty but keep a criminal silence on collective social injustices.”
Suddenly, Uzma reenters the room, her face anxious. “Sir, I have a class in 10 minutes, can we please talk now?” she asks.
Sensing the urgency, Najam excuses himself and leaves the room. His writing pad is on his desk. I glance at it. On one corner of the page, he has written in capitals: “We learn to question, not believe.”
The author is a graduate of Politics and International Relations from Royal Holloway University of London. He tweets @ebadahmed
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 28th, 2021