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September 21, 2019

Draw a veil, please

Opinion

September 21, 2019

The recent decision of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government ordering female students to wear a chadar, veil or abaya created a storm on social media forcing the government to reverse the move. But the reversal has equally been condemned by the ‘religious’ right some of whom also invoked Islamic injunctions and Quranic verses to slam the reversal.

In the past Imran Khan categorically opposed government intervention in deciding as to what women or girls should wear. When the media telecast old comments of Khan on this issue, it created a big embarrassment for the government, forcing it to withdraw the order. The federal minister for science and technology who has earned the ire of clerics over moon sighting issue took the position that those who wanted to dictate the dress code had an extremist mindset. The civil society and women activists also came hard at the government over the issue, with some pointing out the incidents of child sexual abuses at seminaries where everyone observes a conservative dress code.

So the government was embarrassed as its own parliamentarians and leaders again started taking different positions on an issue. MNA Ali Muhammad Khan has defended the earlier decision of the KP government, announcing that he would talk to provincial authorities about it. A KP lawmaker and prominent PTI leader, Shaukat Yousufzai, opined that veil or abaya is good but that no one can be forced. But the adviser to the KP chief minister on elementary and secondary education, Ziaullah Bangash, initially vehemently supported the move, to be embarrassed by the withdrawal later.

It is unfortunate that some elements invoke religious injunctions and orders selectively. One wonders why our clerics and politicians do not invoke religious injunctions in other matters that affect people's lives badly. For instance, more than fifty percent of Pakistani families cannot eat three times properly. But we have not heard anyone lambasting governments for turning a blind eye to them. Thousands of women are raped, children are sexually abused, workers terminated illegally, houses of hapless masses demolished in slums, peasants oppressed by feudals, our labourers here and in ‘brotherly’ states ruthlessly exploited, but not a single word of sympathy, protest and condemnation is ever heard. The matter of national honour arises when it comes to women and children's rights, be it the issue of minors’ marriages or discriminatory laws against women.

No one in this lot talks about the pathetic conditions of schools and educational institutions in KP. According to an Alif Ailaan report from last year, more than 51 percent of girls of KP are not in school. Other reports claim 78 percent girls of the defunct Fata are also bereft of this precious thing called education. The KP government's own survey says 1.8 million children are out of school, excluding students of the defunct Fata.

Many tall claims were made regarding the improvement of schools in KP, with the government claiming to have spent Rs36 billion on the much-vaunted improvement. But an annual report compiled by the Independent Monitoring Unit (IMU) for K-PESED for 2017-18 stated that out of 27,350 functional schools, 7,182 schools do not have basic electricity. The report showed 21,033 primary schools and 6,388 schools were running without electricity. Moreover, 794 schools out of 5,538 secondary schools are in a similar condition. It is a matter of shame for a government that claims to have given importance to education that 2,203 schools including 346 girls' schools are without boundary walls and 5,047 schools including 1,298 girls' schools have no clean drinking water facilities. The government also seems to be indifferent towards the issue of hygiene as 2,229 schools including 1,854 for boys and 375 for girls have no toilet facilities for students and staff members.

It is not only education that seems to have been neglected but the condition of the health departments is not rosy either. According to media reports Lady Reading Hospital (LRH), the largest government hospital in KP, only has 38 beds and 25 incubators in its nursery wards. The average number of patients admitted every day is 60. The situation at the Khyber Teaching Hospital's nursery ward is worse. The hospital only has 35 beds and 11 incubators, while the average number of newborn babies hospitalised every day is 60 to 65. In addition, the hospital also lacks trained staff, which increases the risks to infant lives. This is the situation of the provincial capital. One can imagine the condition of health units in remote areas of the province and the newly merged regions of Fata.

It is not only PTI leaders and clerics who use artificial religious and cultural issues to make up for their real failures. Last year the Sindh government announced to make the ajrak a part of school uniform for girls of class IX to XII. Many critics believe it was done to appease nationalist elements. One fails to understand why the Sindh government did not pay any attention to the more than 4000 schools that have been non-functional for years. Thousands of schools also lack toilet facilities, clean drinking water and other basic amenities as well. The deaths of infants in Thar and other parts of the province speak volumes about the performance of the government.

Education, health and other sectors are not neglected only in these two provinces. The other two provinces also offer disappointing indicators. The largest province of the country by area has a total of 12,987 public schools, out of which a whopping 77 percent operate without electricity while 73 percent don’t have toilets. Most of the 22.8 million out-of-school children are from the country's most prosperous province – Punjab.

Can one hope that our clerics and politicians will at least pretend, just as they do on religion, to be concerned by the human development sector of the country? For our clerics and right-wing failures known as politicians it is their hypocritical politics on and around women’s bodies that takes precedence over everything else.

For them it seems to be all right if women suffer discrimination, young and preteen girls form minorities are abducted and converted, urban centers lack sanitation facility, workers are retrenched, education budgets are slashed and pure drinking water becomes a rare commodity for the majority. They do not need to join hands with slum-dwellers demanding a decent housing and they do not need to show up at police stations that refuse to register FIRs when the poor are brutally victimized. They would gladly draw a veil over all this.

The writer is a freelancejournalist.

Email: [email protected] gmail.com

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