By Zubeida Mustafa
CAN we hope to hear news from Pakistan that brings some light to the end of the tunnel? It is a red-letter day when we do and one such day came recently when I read about a group of creative artists who have shown the courage to counter Pakistan’s biggest existential challenge — the indoctrination of youth by religious extremists and militants.
These artists have ventured to produce rational literature which they are disseminating among young readers to inspire some soul-searching within them. The graphic novel titled Pasban is designed to encourage the readers to ask questions on basic issues of the day and help them seek sensible answers.
This no doubt will be an uphill task considering the government’s own failure to counter the extremist threat. All it was required to do was to introduce liberal values through curricula reforms. The primary need is to teach children tolerance and respect for everyone’s right to freedom of belief and practise one’s own faith.
Those who have saved their intellectual integrity must be valued.
It is not just the ill-conceived curricula and textbooks that are harming education in Pakistan. There is also the indiscriminate recruitment of untrained doctrinaire teachers, graduates of madressahs, who have provided reinforcement to the extremists’ agenda. They poison the young mind at an age when it is most impressionable. Such teachers make a greater impact if the youth is alienated due to social instability and the identity crisis that one has to cope with in Pakistan.
Hence moves by activists to influence public thinking positively are welcome. But that should not absolve education policymakers of their responsibility to ensure that textbooks and teachers do not radicalise students. On the contrary, many of them have played a major role in fostering extremism.
A typical example of how the authorities have let down our youth is the case of Bernadette Dean, the director of the VM Institute for Education, Karachi, and a member of the Sindh government-appointed advisory committee on curricula and textbook reforms.
With her high educational qualifications, rich experience — she has been the principal of two prestigious women’s colleges — and professional competence, Dr Dean is an asset for Pakistan if our youth are to be rescued from the evil jaws of obscurantism. One must remember that several generations of teachers have been destroyed by our decrepit education system whose product they are. The few who have survived and saved their intellectual integrity as well must be valued.
Over two months ago, Dr Dean was forced to leave her home in Karachi and go into exile when she started receiving death threats from a religious party. Matters reached a crisis point when the party put up banners denouncing her and the police could offer no protection apart from taking down the banners.
What are the charges against her? She is accused of being a “foreign woman”, when she is a Pakistani to the core. She has been labelled … an “enemy of Islam” who has “single-handedly changed the curriculum and textbooks to make them secular”.
This is nonsense. I have known Bernadette for many years and have admired her commitment to education. The work she has done for curricular reform has been done jointly with co-authors who are Muslim. They, or for that matter the authorities, have raised no objections to the changes incorporated. One should commend the efforts of the reform committee to cleanse our textbooks of regressive biases that have so painstakingly been pointed out by Prof Anjum Paul of the Pakistan Minority Teachers Association from time to time.
When I contacted Dr Dean recently in her self-exile she was dejected for she could see no prospects of her return in the immediate future assured of her security. She continues to work on some assignments she had in hand but what after that? Communication technology has removed the barriers that distance poses. But there is no substitute for the personal presence of a teacher for her students.
It is a shame that instead of acknowledging Bernadette Dean’s services to education in Pakistan, the government has abandoned her. Or so it seemed to me when she replied in the negative to my question if any official functionary from Karachi had tried to contact her recently.
The fact of the matter is that the extremists are using religion as a guise to hide their nefarious intentions of gaining control over the minds of the youth. Those in whose power it is to stop this viciousness are too afraid to take a stand to save the country from this onslaught that will lead to its certain death if not stopped.
In the perverse thinking of the extremists, non-Muslims cannot be accommodated although the Constitution recognises their right to equal treatment in all walks of life. On their part, minority communities in Pakistan have made an immense contribution to health, education and civic life in the country. They surely deserve a better deal.