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The tireless educators of Karachi

June 12, 2012

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Karachi’s Christian schools have been catering towards the provision of education to all fractions of the city’s socio-economic strata of citizens. – Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com
Karachi’s Christian schools have been catering towards the provision of education to all fractions of the city’s socio-economic strata of citizens. – Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com

“The discipline inculcated in me by my teachers at the Convent has stayed with me through the years,” says award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.

Obaid-Chinoy, who was schooled at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, says the school was run “in a very meticulous manner.” Similar is the case with several other Christian schools spread across Karachi.

Stop a passer-by and ask them the way to the Mama Parsi School, the St. Josephs Convent, the Trinity Methodist School or one of the five branches of Dar-ul-Sukun, and surely, you will receive a satisfactory reply.

Carol Fernandes, a Personal Assistant at a private university* smiles when you ask her if she is happy in Karachi. “Pakistan is my homeland. We have food, shelter, jobs. We are happy.” she says. “In Canada, we would have to slog it out, travel long distances and live hand-to-mouth. My children have received good education here and have managed to acquire respectable jobs. So leaving Pakistan would be stupid!” she adds with a laugh.

Carol’s* optimism though, is not ubiquitous amongst Pakistan’s minority communities.

Represented by the white stripe on Pakistan’s flag, minorities have been granted the right to profess, practice and propagate their religion and to establish, maintain and manage their religious institutions under Article 20 of Pakistan’s constitution. Furthermore, they have been granted protection and representation in federal and provincial sectors under Article 36. Very seldom, though, are these rights granted. The dark shadows of the killings of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti – the only Christian minister in Pakistan’s Cabinet – in 2011, have left Pakistan’s minorities – particularly Christians – in a frenzied state. As of now, there are two Christian representatives, eight Hindu representatives and no Parsi, Sikh or Ahmadi representatives in the present parliament.

Living in a Hindu locality close to Shireen Jinnah Colony, Jamna and Rajoo say things have gone from bad to worse. “The boys in my son’s school tell him to recite the kalima and when he does not, they beat him up. Deva [her son] hides each morning because he doesn’t want to go through such misery. I want to educate my children and secure their future,” says Jamna.

Belonging to the community that added the magnificent Narayan Jaganath High School to Karachi’s cityscape 157 years ago and founded the Diwan Dayaram Jethamal (DJ) Science College in 1887 – both buildings have been declared heritage sites and attract visitors from remote locations – Jamna’s plight is indeed pitiful.

Elizabeth D’Souza, who works at Ziauddin University and hails from Mumbai, is pensive: “There are times when the instability mellows down and everything seems okay. But then, suddenly, the violence increases and I feel like fleeing.”

When asked whether urgent governmental reform is needed, she nods: “We are a minority and we need representation. When I compare Mumbai and Karachi, I see a vast difference. In Mumbai, reforms were not needed because we were on the same platform as the Hindus, the Sikhs, the Christians and the Parsis. We were given equal opportunities. But here, that is not the case.”

But what is similar between Mumbai and Karachi, is the influence of minority communities – mainly Parsis and Christians – in the provision of education via the private sector.

Whilst Mumbai boasts of the famous Maneckji Cooper School, the Bai Avabai Framji Petit High School and the St. Joseph’s Convent amongst its host of Christian and Parsi institutions; Karachi does not lag behind, providing its 18-million strong population with immaculate standards of education through reputable private sector institutions such as the St. Joseph’s Convent – established by the Daughter’s of the Cross in both Mumbai and Karachi –, the St. Patrick’s High School, the Mama Parsi School, the BVS Parsi High School, St. Lawrence’s School and several others.

Suzana Victor, a lecturer at Ziauddin University’s College of Pharmacy, staunchly advocates the fundamental role played by Christians in Karachi’s society. Born and bred in Hyderabad, she reiterates the philanthropic nature of Pakistani Christians. “When I was in college, my friends and I used to stay back in school and teach underprivileged children. The Christian community of Pakistan wants to help the country prosper – they’re simply too scared to come out into the open and render their services through the public sector. The Notre Dame Institute of Education in Karachi, for example, trains young girls – not restricting itself to only Catholics – and awards them with B.Ed. and M.Ed. degrees, giving them the opportunity to develop careers and give back to society,” she says.

Karachi’s Christian schools, as a matter of fact, have been catering towards the provision of education to all fractions of the city’s socio-economic strata of citizens. Bernadette, General Secretary of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and Delphine Ashfaq, principal of YWCA’s Little Star’s School assert that the provision of education via the YWCA is impartial towards all religions, classes, creeds and socio-economic backgrounds. However, when it comes to granting girls accommodation in YWCA’s hostel, they prefer students from the rural areas of Pakistan. “We are staunch advocates of women’s empowerment and believe that children living up north or in interior Sindh do not have sufficient access to good education. That is why we prefer that they take up accommodation in our hostel and study in our school. Their parents trust us when we take their girls under our wing. They trust YWCA because of our discipline,” they say.

Meanwhile, the Nadirshaw Edulji Dinshaw (NED) University of Engineering and Technology, established in 1922, stands as a symbol of its benefactor – after whom the University has been named – who was part of another one of Karachi’s philanthropic minority communities: the Parsis.

The population of Parsis in Pakistan has declined to 1,893 – as per 2009 records. Their diminishing size however, has not served as a hindrance in their efforts towards educating Karachi. The imposing structure of the Mama Parsi School on main MA Jinnah Road is a towering example of how the Parsi community has been educating young girls since 1918. Says the principal, Furengeez Darius Tampal, “We have never commercialised education, throughout the 94 years of existence of this school. Our fee has always been nominal. Our goal has always been to impart education and instill good moral values within our young girls and make them productive members of society.”

Notable for their discipline, Karachi’s Parsi and Christian operated schools have churned out masses of refined students who, in turn, have managed to establish themselves as vital members of society.

Aban Jamal, a social-worker and chairperson of the Al-Umeed Rehabilitation Association, was a student of the Mama Parsi School in the 1950s and recalls her days in the beige building of the school with delight. “We had three pairs of twins in our class, including myself and my sister, and we used to get to all sorts of pranks and mischief back then. Those were great days,” she says with a soft laugh.

But the managements of these institutions understand the threat posed to them in the form of extremism and political instability. Furengeez Darius Tampal says that it hasn’t been an easy task. “We’ve put up a brave front. We’re located in one of Karachi’s most contentious zones – but we haven’t wavered from our mission of providing quality education,” she says with a smile.

These institutions have withstood the tremors of the partition of India and creation of Pakistan, the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971 and today, are providing quality education to the students of Karachi, despite the existence of the dark cloud of political instability and turmoil that has shrouded itself over Karachi’s cityscape.

The existence of these institutions is vital for our metropolis. They serve as sanctuaries for Karachi’s young, vulnerable minds, shielding and preparing them for the tests and trials that they shall have to face in times ahead. In the end, the inspiring school song of one of Karachi’s oldest institutions rings clear: ‘Let us march onto knowledge, the girls of the Mama school’.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.