Almost four decades ago, in a faraway village in northwestern Pakistan, there lived a girl, the eldest of all her siblings. She would see her younger brothers go to school every day, but her family did not allow her to do the same.
When she turned 10, she expressed her desire to read, write, and go to school just like her brothers. Her grandmother agreed. She bought herself a “takhti” [a traditional wooden writing tablet] to write on. She was very happy. She would go to school with religious punctuality. Every day, after coming back, she would clean her takhti with fresh mud so it could be used again the next day.
It had only been a few days since she started school, when one evening, a religious cleric and member of a local religio-political group visited their home. He saw the young girl’s takhti in the room and asked the grandmother about it. She told him that it belonged to her granddaughter, who was fond of learning and went to school every day. The moment the cleric heard these words, he was furious.
“It is against our traditions and values to educate women. If she learns to write, she will start writing letters to other men, and that will violate the honour of your family,” said the cleric. He convinced the grandmother to stop sending the girl to school, and after that day, she was never allowed to step foot in school again.
That girl is my mother. She has told me this story multiple times in my life. I can see tears and helplessness in her eyes whenever she talks about it, and my heart sinks whenever I think of her younger self. She was too young to resist when her dreams were shattered. The distant possibility of her writing letters to a man once she learnt to read and write was enough to snatch away her right to education from her.
Every year on International Women’s Day since 2018, Aurat March is held in cities across Pakistan where women and gender minorities come together and speak up about gender-based patriarchal injustices. This year, I went to the march with a placard that said, “I march for my mom who was not allowed to go to school.”
Then, I wrote a Twitter thread about my mother’s story, and it went viral. I received so many heartwarming messages from different people who were moved by the story and shared the pain my mother went through.
This is not just the story of one individual. It is the story of millions of women across Pakistan and across the globe.
When I shared my mother’s story, many people also shared stories of women in their lives. I was particularly shocked by two of them. One of my friends told me that his mother was the fifth daughter in her family. When she was born, her parents were sad and her mother refused to breastfeed her for two days because she was a girl.
Another Facebook user commented that when his mother wanted to go to school, her brother threatened to commit suicide because he considered it dishonourable for his sisters to study with other boys.
I want to use these stories to point out a wider problem.
The gender disparity in education
There is a huge gender disparity in primary school enrolments in Pakistan. According to the World Bank, there are two million more girls out of school than boys in Pakistan — 12m girls in total — and 7 per cent more girls than boys who have never been to school.
Pakistan ranks as the second-worst country (145/146), second to Afghanistan on the Global Gender Gap Index 2022 by the World Economic Forum. In the economic participation and opportunity indicator, Pakistan once again ranks as the second last while in education attainment, Pakistan ranks 135 out of 146 countries.
The challenges multiply when we move towards higher education. According to World Bank statistics from 2019, women only account for 12pc of all higher education enrolment in Pakistan as compared to 20pc in Bangladesh and 30pc in India.
In addition to the lack of enrolment itself, other factors come together to disproportionately affect women’s educational attainment and empowerment as well. For example, student unions in Pakistan were banned in 1984. This was undoubtedly a problem for all students, but reduced the already disproportionate representation women had in the political sphere.
My mom’s story is a metaphor, and it represents the apartheid and discrimination that girls face at larger levels in society.
A lesson from our neighbour
There are many reasons behind the lack of awareness about female education in our society. One of the main reasons is how our culture has evolved over the past few decades. Whenever there is a voice for women’s rights, there is resistance. The majority of people do not understand the importance of educating and empowering women, and how one educated woman can change the fate of generations.
Our country needs more and more educated women at this moment. Bangladesh is a prime example in this regard. It has empowered women through its policies and education and included women in the workforce as a vital source of growth for the economy, instead of limiting them to the four walls of their homes. This is the future we need to save our country. But more importantly, this is the future our women deserve.
There are millions of untold stories that will never be heard. It is essential to recognise such individual stories to create an equal and inclusive world. To do better. With the ongoing economic crisis in Pakistan, it is important for the state to recognise the significance of educating and empowering women. If we educate all of our women, we can create a society slowly ridding itself of extremism, bigotry, and misogyny. This way, we can leave a better Pakistan for the generations to come.