Published in the Express Tribune on November 24, 2012


Walking past an unpaved path in the mud colony, one could almost miss the blue door covered with a dirty cloth, inviting little attention to what transpired behind it. But locals at this Afghan settlement in Islamabad were aware that the sounds emanating from inside were of Chand Bibi’s classroom in session.

The 58-year-old educator taught the Quran to young girls and elderly women and schooled them on basic hygiene and social values in light of the scripture. The premises in Afghan Colony in I-11 sector of Islamabad belongs to a local Fazal Shah, and comprises a single square concrete structure, on which stands a small unlit room with a dusty straw mat over which students gather every afternoon.

Once the students are done with reading the Quran, the nature of learning changes; black plastic bags are brought out.

“Notebooks,” says Bibi, showing Urdu writing on the thick-lined pages.

Chand Bibi’s pro-education outlook defies the traditional place of women in her hometown of Mingora. Deprived of an education while growing up, Bibi would wait for her brother to return home to share what he had learnt at school.

It wasn’t till the age of 25 that she secretly registered herself at a nontraditional school in Mingora, making sure her family didn’t find out.

Bibi turns bitter while recalling her struggles to acquire education. She sees herself in the young girls at the school. They too come from conservative homes and speak little Urdu, said Bibi, adding that she worked on imparting basic counting, reading, writing skills as well as teaching them how to stitch.

“I want to give these young girls a path,” she said, pointing to the younger group of pupils huddled on straw mat outside the room for lack of space.

Apart from running the school, Bibi also sells pieces of second-hand clothing obtained from warehouses to pay for her transport to home in a cramped Rawalpindi apartment and back.

“Kapra (clothing) is a Pakhtun woman’s tool for survival,” explained Bibi, who is separated from her husband, and is struggling to provide for herself.

Though she charges a paltry Rs50 as school fee, most students are unable to pay it. Hence the travel expense, back and forth from her home in Rawalpindi falls squarely on Bibi’s shoulders.

Bibi’s 150 students come in three shifts of 50, which are spread throughout the week. Most of them are Pashtun or Afghan.

“My students have to bring their own Quran, sewing machines and notebooks,” she said, as students piled in and scrambled to find sitting space in the dark room. A ceiling fan, water tank and a shelf were the only furnishings. The afternoon sun lit up the verses of the Quran.

“There is too much ignorance in the community,” explains Bibi who calls her school a madrassa to avoid reproach by extremist elements.

15-year-old Shazia, whose father pulled her out of school after she reached puberty, was bent over her books. For the young woman who could not attend regular school owing to the presence of male teachers, Chand Bibi’s non-traditional classroom was the way forward. Similarly, Sardar Bibi, 59, is finally learning Urdu, along with four other elderly women.

“It is never too late to seek an education, even though sometimes I feel desolate,” shared the shy mother, who challenges the confines of a preordained life within a landscape where the role of women is limited to the peripheries of their homes.

Realizing that she is far from reaching her goal of establishing a proper school and technical training center, Bibi wishes that she could at least provide for basic facilities such as pens, notebooks and sewing machines. With nothing more than a fan, a water tank donated by the non-government organization (NGO) Muslim Hand and three straw mats, the facility is lacking in provisions since it started nine months ago.

Chand Bibi claims to have contacted several NGOs and ministers but to no avail. Sixty per cent of women are out-of-school across the country, making a strong case for non-traditional schools for women, which allow young girls to tiptoe around cultural and religious taboos.

The National Assembly has recently passed a bill for the right to education for all, taking within its fold the 70,000 out-of-school children in the Islamabad area. Meanwhile, the cold-blooded attack on the 14-year-old student Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted in her hometown Mingora, Swat, for endorsing female education, has prompted overdue but necessary attention towards the dismal state of education in the country.

Nafisa Shah, chairperson of the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) announced the creation of Malala Schools across 16 regions affected by natural calamities and the onslaught of terrorism. The announcement has yet to reveal how funding will be provided for the project and whether it will support the efforts of women like Chand Bibi who have struggled for education against a rigid mindset.

Both, the celebrated Right to Education Bill and the Malala school initiative, have yet to face the daunting task of planning, implementation and monitoring, none of which have proved to be the nation’s forte with only a meager 2% allocation of the budget for education.

“I wish that when each of these girls gets married, they could get a sewing machine,” said Chand Bibi, sharing her vision of what the fledgling school could be.