Girls and women marched in protest earlier this month in Panjgur. Photo published on Facebook by Doc Balochistan.
Over the past few weeks, girls and their supporters have been holding protests in remote areas of Pakistan’s troubled Balochistan province, where dozens of schools have been forced to close due to threats from extremists.
Threatening girls to stop them from going to school is nothing new in Pakistan – Malala Yousafzai’s case is just the most infamous example – but it now seems to be spreading to parts of the country that had previously been spared. Two weeks ago, all private schools in Balochistan’s districts of Panjgur and Turbat were forced to close after being threatened by a hitherto unknown group called “Tenzeem Islami Al-Furqan” ("the Organisation of Islam for the Koran"). These shadowy extremists, much like the Taliban or Boko Haram in Nigeria, say they are against “Western education” for girls.
In response, students, parents and supporters have held several marches both in Panjgur and in the province’s capital Quetta. Encouraged by this support, some of the schools briefly reopened their doors last week, but faced with renewed threats, they have closed again. Balochistan’s chief minister has promised to take action so that the schools can reopen. However, quite a few teachers, after receiving death threats, have fled town or are afraid to return to work.
Girls and women marched in protest earlier this month in Panjgur. Photo published on Facebook by Doc Balochistan.“They threw grenades in our computer lab”
My school, which instructed girls of middle and high school age in all subjects, was the first to be targeted in Panjgur. We had received written threats from this mysterious group, and then a couple of months ago, they attacked us. We were teaching our classes when they opened fire outside our school. There were three men; they all had their faces covered, and were armed with guns and hand grenades. They came inside and made everyone leave the classrooms. They told the girls not to come back to class, and told the staff that if we didn’t close the school, we would be killed. They threw two hand grenades, one into our computer lab, and another into our office. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. The school has been closed since that day.
Soon, other private schools started to close. They received the same threats as we had. One school director was attacked as he was driving to school. They beat him up, and set his empty school van on fire. They set fire to several schools, too. This went on until all the private schools in the area decided to close their doors indefinitely about two weeks ago.
These extremists targeted private schools because that’s where girls are taught English; the local public schools [where girls’ enrollment is low] teach only in Urdu. English is essential for our girls’ future – you have to be able to speak it to go to college. Since our school opened in 2005, many girls received scholarships and went on to study universities all over Pakistan. Apparently, this threatens these men, who are surely uneducated and would prefer girls to be backwards.
My school is not going to reopen; the director, who is my father, has received too many death threats. I have moved to Karachi with my younger brothers and sisters so they can pursue their education here. Other teachers I know have left town, too. Those who stayed are scared and depressed. And the girls, it’s so unfair for them. They have so much potential; it’s unimaginable that these extremists would take away their basic right to an education. Those who are protesting are very brave indeed.
Activists in Balochistan have launched a petition and a Facebook page to educate people about the threat to girls' education.
According to UNESCO’s latest figures, 42 percent of students in enrolled in Pakistan’s schools are female; girls drop out at higher rates and earlier than boys. Over 5 million primary-school aged children are not in school in Pakistan, and more than 60 percent of these are girls.
A pamphlet that was distributed in Panjgur before private schools were attacked. It reads, in part:
"For 15 years, Western and European people have tried to promote their mindset and culture to Muslims, and have introduced private schools and English language centres ... [This mindset] has led our daughters and sisters towards vulgarity ... We have seized mobile phones from so-called teachers and in them we have seen girls' phone numbers and messages from them as well as offensive videos. So we request all parents to kindly keep their daughters away from such so-called schools. We strictly order van and car drivers not to take any girls to school from now on, and request that parents enroll their daughters in public schools rather than private schools. We also request the these schools' staff to stop teaching girls immediately. ... If anyone does not follow our requests, then they will be faced with a critical situation. Signed, Tenzeem Islami Al-Furqan."
Protesters in Balochistan's capital, Quetta, on May 26. Photo published on Twitter by Yasir Ahmed Durrani.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).