PM on education

Published December 22, 2021

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan’s remarks about girls’ education in tribal districts in Pakistan and Afghanistan have triggered a fiery debate with many criticising him for attempting to justify the Taliban viewpoint on women’s education.

At the OIC meeting in Islamabad, Mr Khan made the unfortunate remarks as he earnestly beseeched the world — especially the US — to act fast and deliver financial aid to an Afghanistan firmly under Taliban rule and stressed that “human rights and women’s rights are different in every society”. He went on to talk about Pakhtun culture and sensitivities regarding girls’ education in predominantly Pakhtun districts, implying somehow that Pakhtuns were not in favour of women’s education.

Read more: Pakhtuns, state and nationalism

His statement was heavily criticised on social media, even prompting Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai to weigh in. Though she did not explicitly name Mr Khan, Ms Yousafzai, who nearly lost her life fighting against the TTP’s ban on girls’ education, said that scores of Pakhtun activists had lost their lives when they raised their voice against the horrors perpetrated by militants, underscoring how so many were displaced or killed in their fight for girls’ right to education. “We represent Pashtoons — not the Taliban,” she said.

Mr Khan’s viewpoint on girls’ education is ill-informed. It is also puzzling that although he has often rightly drawn attention to Islamophobia, and wants the West to differentiate between radical and moderate Muslims, he has painted the Pakhtun people with the same broad brush, implying that all of them are opposed to women’s rights — an attitude that is reflected in some Western states who tend to see the Muslim world in black and white terms.

These areas that Mr Khan is painting as backward or regressive are mostly underdeveloped, ignored by governments or deprived of investment. The reality is that many girls want to go to school, but a lack of infrastructure coupled with resistance from certain forces such as the ultra-conservative Taliban, prevent them from doing so.

The premier should know better than to co-opt a Taliban viewpoint and present it as a justification for what is simply a violation of the basic right to education. In fact, his stance that human rights and women’s rights should somehow change depending on society is extremely damaging. When it comes to women’s rights, there have been too many instances when Mr Khan has taken a position that is controversial. He must correct his approach and weigh his words in future.

Published in Dawn, December 22nd, 2021

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