When we look at the stark gender disparity in our cultural milieu, a number of barriers to girls’ education visibly stand out. Most of these barriers are established and strengthened by our ethos, and are hence, internal. Some of them are apparently external.
However, these obstacles are also formed and nourished by the collective cultural attributes of an extremely patriarchal mindset. Internal impediments include gender norms, early marriages, violence at school, the idea of women as objects of honour and morality. External obstacles include distance to educational institutes, high cost of education, poverty and lack of schools.
Usually, girls are supposed to carry out household activities such as fetching water, taking care of siblings, helping mothers in cooking and cleaning, and in some rural settings, looking after the cattle and working in the fields. Because of these gender norms, girls usually do not get the opportunity to attend school as their contribution in household activities is valued more than their personal growth, particularly through education.
In the majority of cases, especially in agrarian communities, girls are married at a very young age. This causes for them to be pulled out of school before even entering higher education. Consequently, they are deprived of learning life skills. Violence at school on both genders is very common in Pakistan. Girls reportedly become victims of violence, discrimination and harassment in school premises more than boys. This forces them to leave school.
Unfortunately, our society has, by now, adopted a worldview entrenched in and subject to a very superficial adherence to religion and culture. Our ideas of morality have been narrowed down to women only. The popular narrative regarding morality revolves around the body and actions of a woman. Moreover, the honour of our family, even community and society, lies with our women. All of this has given impetus to the internal and external barriers mentioned above.
The distance from home to school and less number of schools for girls than for boys are among the effects of a patriarchal mindset – operative in our country at the policy level where it is the men who mostly rule. On a societal level, in general, when the higher cost of education comes in, we usually prefer to expend money on education for boys. When poverty forces us to prioritise education for our children we prefer to educate our boys and not our girls.
The obstacles to girls’ education indicated above can surely be mitigated through the continued support by the family and community. Being the basic unit of a community or society, the family can perform a critical role in educating girls. This can influence the overall cultural web knitted around us either at the grassroots level or at the policy level.
According to Ziauddin Yousafzai – the proud father of Malala Yousufzai who is the youngest Nobel laureate from Swat, Pakistan – “I did not clip her wings.” Malala is now a student at Oxford University. There was a time when she, along with many other students, was barred from acquiring education by the Taliban in Swat. It was the support of her family, particularly her father, that enabled Malala to not only chase her dreams but also become a beacon of hope for many others. Her father supported her and encouraged her to pursue her dreams. She has now become a symbol of change for girls around the world. Had Ziaduddin ever acted like his countrymen do, the world would never have had a champion like Malala.
Accompanied by her father, Nayab is daily seen going to her college from a remote village in the mountains of Swat Pakistan. She travels 30 kilometres to her college daily, despite the fact that her father earns a meagre income. Nayab has her father’s support; otherwise hundreds of girls her age are not as fortunate because they do not have fathers as passionate about educating their daughters as Nayab’s father is.
Kainat’s father is a poor labourer who can hardly meet the financial needs of his family. “I could not get education. I cannot afford my daughter to remain ignorant like me”. Kainat completed matriculation – 10 years of education – at a private school at a distance of two kilometres. She is now studying at a college far away from her village. Her father has let her continue her higher education.
Saniya is supported by her brother who works overseas as a labourer. Saniya walks four kilometres over a hill and then 15 kilometres by road to reach her college. Her brother did not clip her wings even though his relatives and other villagers never appreciated him for allowing his adolescent sister to go to a college.
None of the great fathers mentioned here are held in high-esteem in their particular cultural and religious milieu. Yet, they continue to support their daughters in the pursuit of higher education which is an undeniable right they are entitled to.
In our cultural setting, girls and women are never free to decide and choose a life for themselves. A complete emancipation of women is still a utopia all over the world. Male dominance in our cultural conditions is a reality. As long as men will define the cultural and religious ethos in a society like ours, convincing families to support the education for their daughters and sisters will remain a profound need.
The writer heads an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.