It’s 8am and the girls have begun to arrive at Wasim Ali’s autaq. The autaq [guest house] is in the village of Qaim Khan Jalalani, seven kilometres east of Jhol Town, in district Sanghar. And for the next few hours, it will serve as a makeshift school for girls in this rural outpost.
Happy to see each other and excited at the prospect of learning, the girls are not permitted by their parents to talk to anyone else except their teacher, Wasim Ali. As Ali introduces Shagufta, Mehnaz and Yasmeen to me, they start pulling their veils across their faces. Ali reassures them that they are allowed to talk to me. They relax and share their stories about being allowed to study at the autaq.
“Our male family members do not allow us to go outside the village for education,” says 12-year-old Mehnaz. “So we are lucky to get post-primary education through the efforts of Sir [Ali] who convinced our families for it. We were allowed to get admission in Government High School, Jhol, on the condition that we will study with Sir and go to school only for exams.”
Shumaila, a class nine student was confined to her room for two days as a punishment when she asked her father to enrol her in school. “He became enraged and told me that this doesn’t happen in our village,” she recalls.
A young landlord from Sindh has defied his village’s conventions and stereotypes and used his own resources to help girls and poor students continue their education
Ali, 25, is a landlord who owns 25 acres of land and lives with his family in Qaim Khan Jalalani, which comprises over 120 households of the Jalalani and Khaskheli clans. While graduating from the University of Sindh, where he studied with girls, Ali felt sad about the girls in his village being denied the right to education.
“One day I spoke about this to my cousin, and she asked me if my [future] daughter would also have the same fate as the other village girls,” recalls Ali. “Her question shook my soul.”
Despite knowing that it was a huge task to convince the patriarchy in his community, Ali decided to take up the project of girls’ education in his village.
“Initially, the village elders disapproved of what I had to say,” he says. “But after repeated assurances that I would teach the girls at my autaq and they would only go to the school [in Jhol] for appearing in exams, they finally agreed.”
Qaim Khan Jalalani does have a primary school attended by boys and girls from the village as well as some from nearby villages. “In the two rooms of this school,” says Noor Ahmed Jalalani, a teacher from the school, “I tried to create an environment where boys and girls could learn together, but the villagers disapproved, so now they sit in separate rooms. Nobody wants to send girls outside the village for studying, because it’s a matter of protecting their honour and dignity. But Ali’s efforts have brought about a big change.”
Ali had to find a way to make sure that the village children, especially girls, could continue their education without having to go outside the village, so as not to offend the elders. But they would still need to formalise the education by taking exams. He had to find a midpoint between the village elders, the village kids and the school administration.
Starting at home with his brother, and maternal and paternal uncles, Ali began a door-to-door campaign in 2015, to sensitise girls’ fathers who didn’t want to send their girls to a school outside their village. Later, Ali took an oath in front of everyone at the village mosque, to look after the girls as though they were his sisters, and the villagers began enrolling their girls in his school. They would study with Ali and appear for exams in the Jhol secondary school.
Now Ali required permission from the school management for exempting girls from attending school daily. Initially, the headmistress of the school refused. “I managed to convince her through a female teacher, explaining how difficult it had been to get approval from the village elders,” he says.
From 8am to noon every day, Ali’s autaq is reserved for the girls’ classes and no guests are allowed to visit during these hours. Some girls who got admission to class six in 2015, and studied at the autaq, have recently passed their intermediate examinations with flying colours.
“Ali belongs to a strong patriarchal system,” says Najaf Rind, an educationist associated with the Sindh Education Foundation in Sanghar. “In these areas, women are not even allowed to step outside the village for medical needs, but now girls commute to Jhol city for education.”
After conducting classes for girls at his autaq free of cost, Ali also goes to Jhol city’s dilapidated Mir Allah Bux Public Library, where he teaches about 50 students who cannot afford education.
“We are students of class 11 at the Government Boys Higher Secondary School, Jhol,” says Gulab Jalalani, one of Ali’s 17-year-old students. “Our previous teacher was transferred to Sanghar and, since then, a new teacher has not been appointed in our school, so we only go to school for exams.”
Gulab’s village, Amb Khan Jalalani is 5km away from Jhol city and he commutes daily in a rickshaw to meet Ali for lessons at the library. “Five boys from my village, who are also my classfellows, join me here,” he says. “We are very poor and can’t even think of going to private schools or a tuition centre.”
Ganesh Kumar from the Government Boys Higher Secondary School, Jhol, recently got an A grade in his intermediate exams after studying with Ali at the library. “I am now preparing for my entrance test for medical college,” he says.
According to Ghulam Haider, the secretary of the Sindhi Adabi Sangat, Jhol branch, Ali is not like typical Sindhi landlords whose children go to private schools, but to whom the thought of educating under-privileged children never occurs.
“Wasim is at the library from 3pm till 8pm,” says Haider. “During this period, students keep arriving. Sometimes, he also buys them books and stationery.”
Ali translates English language research papers and documentaries into Sindhi for the students to understand, a facility not available even in the expensive schools of Sanghar.
For the last three years, Ali’s occupation with his education project has led him to hire a manager to look after his agricultural land. He has also not had the time to get married and fulfil his mother’s wishes.
“What else do you need in life when you’re trying to shape the future of so many poor students,” he says with a smile. But Ali is a busy man. Almost immediately, he is back checking the assignments submitted by his students.
The writer is a freelance journalist and can be reached at email@example.com. He tweets @mabas_khaskheli
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 15th, 2022