By Salma Hasan Ali
In about a week, InshAllah, I will be traveling to Pakistan. My ticket is booked; visa arrived this morning; shalwar kameezes are at the dry cleaners.
It’s not the ideal time to be going to Pakistan. A recent report by the Atlantic Council said Pakistan “is on a rapid trajectory toward becoming a failing or failed state.” A New York Times editorial last week put it this way: “Almost no one wants to say it out loud. But between the threats from extremists, an unraveling economy, battling civilian leaders and tensions with its nuclear rival India, Pakistan is edging ever closer to the abyss.”
The abyss grew depressingly deeper this week, when the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in a commando-style ambush, leaving eight people dead and several players wounded. Twelve gunmen — carrying sacks of ammunition — attacked the team’s bus in broad daylight — in the heart of Lahore — and then escaped in motorized rickshaws. What??
The terrorists knew what they were doing: attack the nation’s most cherished pastime — it’s symbol of camaraderie and goodwill — and you attack the heart and soul of the country and instill maximum fear.
So, why exactly am I going to Pakistan when relatives there and here are counseling not to, and those who can are leaving?
It’s to witness the work of two men – one a Pakistani, the other an American – who are tirelessly, quietly, and with humility working to improve the lives of Pakistanis so the desperation and hopelessness at the root of the current chaos, one day, diminishes.
An AP photograph in the NYT shows those who died in the Lahore massacre lying on stretchers covered with blood-stained white sheets with four letters printed on them: EDHI.
Edhi is hardly known in the United States, but to Pakistanis around the world he is a true hero. In the past 60 years, he’s created one of the largest and most successful health and welfare networks in Asia. He started off begging for donations. Today, he runs a nationwide organization of ambulances, clinics, orphanages, homes for the physically handicapped, blood banks, mortuaries, and much more. Edhi, and his wife of nearly 45 years Bilquis, live in a small two bedroom apartment next to his office in one of the clinics. He accepts no salary. He’s on call 24 hours a day. Their wedding night is indicative of how they spend their days: Edhi and Bilquis rushed a 12-year old girl with major head injuries to the hospital and supervised blood transfusions throughout the night. His vision of charity is at the heart of Islam. Why don’t we hear about it?
Many know of Greg Mortenson’s inspiring story through his best-selling book “Three Cups of Tea”. He is receiving the Sitara-e-Pakistan, Pakistan’s highest civilian award, in Islamabad on March 23rd. No doubt, he will receive the award accompanied by his indomitable Pakistani staff, including Suleman Minhas, with whom I’ve been communicating. After two brief phone conversations, and not even a shared cup of tea, I already feel like family.. I call him “bhai” (brother); he writes to me as “respected Salma”. Most of our conversations have focused on his assuring me not to worry; that the minute I land in Islamabad, I will be his most revered guest. No wonder Mortenson was blown away by Pakistanis’ generosity and warmth.
Maybe Mortenson will bring some of the girls from his schools, because as he always says, they are the true heroes. Perhaps Shakeela, who started by writing with sticks in the sand, and is now in her third year of medical school in Lahore. She will be the first locally educated woman to become a physician. Or maybe Ghosia Mughal, one of the first students to return to school in her village after the devastating 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir, that killed her mother, several of her siblings and left her father paralyzed. “Watching that first brave girl enter a school, is like watching man taking his first step on the moon,” says Mortenson. “It’s one giant leap for mankind.” Mortenson is keenly aware that behind one girl comes dozens more, eventually hundreds and thousands.
No doubt there are tragic forces at play in the country trying to undermine the fabric of its politics, culture, society, and soul. Sometimes seemingly overwhelming forces. But there are also kernels of hope that remind us that all will not be lost to violence and a distorted mindset.
There are people like Edhi and thousands more working each day to feed, nurse, console, support and shelter. There are people like Suleman and hundreds of others fiercely loyal to Mortenson’s commitment — and the commitment of so many NGOs around the country — to educate Pakistan’s children. There are young women like Shakeela, smart, capable, determined, and feisty, who will ultimately change the country, if given the chance.
This is the Pakistan I’m going to see. And when I get back, these are the stories I’m going to share, with anyone willing to listen.
At 17 Mozammat Razia Begum is older than most of the girls in her class at the Narandi School. She was married at 15 but her husband abandoned her.
‘If I had been educated he would not have been able to abandon me so readily, leaving me nothing for maintenance,’ she says. The marriage of young girls without proper contracts – followed soon after by abandonment – is a serious social problem in Bangladesh. Razia blames her parents. ‘My parents were wrong to marry me off so young. If I had a daughter, I should not let her marry until she was at least 19.’
The school Razia attends is one of 6,000 non-formal village schools set up by BRAC – the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee – exclusively for pupils who have never started school and those who had to drop out. Three-quarters of the 180,000 pupils are girls. Although married girls are not normally catered for, exceptions are made. Many of the teachers are women: parents in Bangladesh frequently keep their daughters away from school if teachers are male. And each BRAC school is situated right in the community: if schools are far away parents will not let girls attend. It is not acceptable for girls – especially those past puberty – to walk about the countryside in this devout Muslim country.
‘I am fortunate to be here,’ says Razia, looking round the schoolroom with its tin roof and walls of bamboo and mud. She had to fight to come, though. Her father believes that a woman’s place is at home. ‘Had I been a boy,’ she said, ‘my father would surely have allowed me to study.’
Razia’s own mother was married at 12 and, like her oldest daughter, had no say in the matter. ‘I want my sisters’ lives to be different. They should study and be given a choice about their marriage. Husbands will not dare to treat an educated woman badly.’ On this subject, Razia becomes quite animated.
Razia would like to go on with her studies after she has completed the BRAC course. During the two-and-a-half hour daily session – which is timetabled to fit in with seasonal work and religious obligations – she learns literacy and numeracy, as well as enjoying activities such as singing, dancing, games and storybook reading.
BRAC have had a remarkable success in keeping the drop-out rate from their schools to five per cent and graduating 90 per cent of their students into the formal primary system. This proves that the obstacles to girls’ education – even in such a poor environment – can be overcome.
As for Razia, her experience of life has forced her to question many things she once took for granted – such as the need to get married. She does not wish to marry again. And many other girls have begun to question the restrictions imposed on them. More of them want to be teachers – like their own teacher – or doctors. Razia says: ‘I tell my sisters to study well and get a job. If they get a job they will be able to do as well as men and men will respect them.’