Road to recovery for gender equality in education in Pakistan b

2013-02-11 17:06:00


The world is happy to know that the girl named Malala Yousufzai from the Swat Valley in Pakistan is doing well and has been discharged from the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham in the UK.

Yousufzai has become a hero for the majority of people in the world for challenging the anti-intellectual Taliban in her country, who identified Yousufzai as a threat to their political agenda when Yousufzai demanded education for girls. What Yousufzai wants is not different from what the Prophet Muhammad wanted for girls. Since the Prophet’s time until today, the situation has not changed. Gender inequality remains one of the biggest challenges in Pakistan in the 21st century. The majority of girls and women in this country remain one of the most uneducated people of the world.

Gender inequality in education in Pakistan

Pakistan is the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia and the number of Muslims in Pakistan constitutes 11 percent of the world’s Muslim population. However, gender inequality in education is still extreme despite the Quran’s spirit of “Iqra” (read). According to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), almost 77 million children worldwide are deprived of one of their basic rights: education. Girls make up 56 percent of these children. The Global Campaign for Education reports that more than 5.1 million primary school-aged children in Pakistan do not attend school. Sixty-three percent of them are girls. This is the third highest number of out-of-school children in the world. A chronic absenteeism from school among girls is worse in rural areas of Pakistan than in the urban areas. Because of the gender inequality in education, the UN Development Program (UNDP) 2010 report ranked Pakistan 120 out of 146 countries based on its Gender-related Development Index.

Pakistani society is not welcoming for girls who want to attend school. Even those who are enrolled in schools cannot attend them on a regular basis. What is holding Pakistan back in gender equality in education? There are various reasons, including gender discrimination, early marriage and pregnancy, and physical and mental violence against girls within and outside of schools.

Cultural and social beliefs, attitudes, stereotypes and practices in Pakistan discriminate girls from getting equal educational opportunities. The general tendency in society is to invest in sons’ education rather than daughters’. Families encourage boys to get a higher education but fail to do so for girls. Such discrimination against girls results in poor self-esteem among Muslim girls in Pakistan, who only envisage a future as wives and mothers.

Early marriage and pregnancy also play a central role in why girls do not receive equal educational opportunities in Pakistan. A few days ago, Blue Veins Program Coordinator Qamar Naseem reported that more than 60 million girls around the world under the age of 18 were married last year, out of which 24 percent were from rural Pakistan and 18 percent from its urban areas. According to Naseem, poverty is a significant reason for early marriages in Pakistan as “poor families often have few resources to support healthy alternatives for girls, such as giving them proper education.”

Another key reason why Muslim girls do not attend school is because of violence against girls in Pakistan. A joint report by the UN and the Pakistani government pointed out that “females in Pakistan face discrimination, exploitation and abuse at many levels, starting with girls who are prevented from exercising their basic right to education either because of traditional family practices, economic necessity or as a consequence of the destruction of schools by militants.” The majority of these militants belong to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In 2008 and 2009 more than 40,000 girls in the Swat Valley, where Yousufzai lives, did not attend school due to threats by the TTP. Furthermore, the TTP destroyed more than 100 schools in the valley.

There are many reasons why the existing gender inequality in education in Pakistan is problematic.

First, the TTP violates the Quran by depriving women of their right to education and banning school for Muslim girls even at the expense of the lives of these girls and their families. Unfortunately, these people make their claims on behalf of the sunnah, the sayings and actions of the Prophet.

Second, Muslims in Pakistan fail to pass on the true spirit of Islam from generation to generation. How is it possible to accomplish this important task if Muslim girls are deprived of their rights that the Prophet Muhammad declared in the seventh century? For instance, the Quran is very explicit about the importance of education. An example among the numerous verses about it is the following verse that states: “Those truly fear Allah, among His servants, who have knowledge.” (35:28)

The Prophet Muhammad also encouraged Muslims to seek knowledge and made seeking knowledge a duty for every Muslim, man or woman. In the Kanz al-Ummal, Abdullah ibn Mas’ud was reported to have said that it is the duty of parents to bring their daughter up and give them a good education, including the “arts of life.”

Consequences of gender inequality in Pakistan

Third, without education Muslim women and girls in Pakistan cannot claim their economic, political, social and spiritual rights. Education is the only way to establish, promote and protect human rights.

Fourth, imposing limits on Muslim girls acquiring education prevents not only women but also men from fulfilling their moral responsibility as human beings. As Khaled Abou El Fadl claims: “Every adult Muslim, man or woman, is obligated to understand and implement the Shariah. Accountability is personal and individual and no single person or institution may or can represent the Divine Will. … God wishes human beings to search and seek for the Divine Will. Truth adheres to the search -- the search itself is the ultimate truth. Consequently, correctness is measured according to the sincerity of the individual’s search.”

Thus, gender inequality in education in Pakistan prevents Muslim women from fully participating in the social, economic, political and spiritual life of the country. It harms society by reducing national and international competitiveness. Therefore, in order to emerge and grow as a country, there must not be a barrier to education for Muslim women.

*Dr. Nazila Isgandarova is a Toronto-based researcher and analyst who also works for the Azerbaijani Women’s Support Centre.


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