Protecting Students from the Taliban

The Taliban had closed all the three private schools along with the single public school for girls in the area of Bahrain in Swat.

pakistani-electionsAfter the Taliban captured the entire district of Swat, a peace agreement was reached between the Pakistani government and Taliban in February 2009. Shortly after, a former schoolmate of mine named Moamber told me: “Yes, but you have also girls as teachers at your school who mix with your male colleagues.”

I approached my former classmate to protect him from a possible Taliban reprisal against the “Mhoon School.” This school was established for children by the local nonprofit organization Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) in Bahrain in August 2008. I was warned to keep the female teachers away from the school because the “case” was being discussed by the Taliban at their local headquarter, the Taliban Markaz.

We did not initially close  our school until one day a colleague yelled, “Lock, lock the gate. Taliban are coming towards us.” In fear we did close the school for four months and most of us went underground until September 2009 when the military declared Swat “clear of Taliban.”

Before closing down Mhoon School, the Taliban had closed all the three private schools along with the single public school for girls in Bahrain in Swat. In 2007, anger against girls going to the school intensified. At this time a jirga (tribal council of elders) implicitly triggered by Taliban sympathizers campaigned against the girls going to private schools. I tried to organize private school teachers and owners on a platform and managed to confront the jirga. After a three-month struggle, we succeeded in diffusing the pressure and were allowed to let the girls go to school.

This struggle and our yearning to revitalize the endangered language Torwali and the indigenous culture inspired us to form a civil society institution in an area marginalized for decades. I am glad that this tiny group is now a functioning organization.

Critical thinking in a rigid society is like throwing pebbles into a pond of stagnant water staled for centuries. When one throws pebbles into the pond a certain outcome is nasty smell. Challenging the centuries old orthodoxy and indoctrination carried out through the school and mosque can bring stigmas like infidelity, social boycott and apostasy. This is what happened with our team, and we have faced difficult challenges for years. Even the educated seniors had “advised” us to leave the area permanently.

But the greatest lesson we learned is to keep yourself clean in worldly matters so that one may not point fingers at you. Honesty and perseverance coupled with intellectual clarity and secular righteousness in daily affairs with people can make a difference. This was our strength that gave us courage to survive the opposite nasty gales.

Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi, actually Alif Be Te — the first three alphabets in Urdu and Torwali — was established in early 2007 by the youth of Bahrain in Swat with the vision to strive with the community for a better tomorrow. Alif Be Te or IBT has a focused area of operation and interest for improving the ethno-linguistic minority communities of north Pakistan.

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These communities from Chitral to Gilgit-Baltistan have their distinct but endangered languages and cultures. They are also among the least explored and developed communities in Pakistan. Their identity is shrouded in a mystery. They are referred to as migrants by many corners of mainstream Pakistan despite the fact that they are the original inhabitants of the mountainous regions of the Hindu Kush stretched to the bottom of the Himalayan Mountains. Their roots are pre-Buddhist with specific indigenous worldviews.

One of the threats to their unique identity is their languages. Almost all the languages in the region do not have a written tradition. Only a few among them have recently been able to develop a script, let alone any huge written corpus. The repertoire in the form of their languages, cultures and rich ecology; and the resultant conservation of both the social and natural heritages can be applied as effective tools for an integrated and sustainable development of these ignored communities. With these goalposts in sight IBT has started work on the languages by incorporating them in education and literacy.

Currently the organization is based in Bahrain Swat where it has started two innovative projects in education and a couple of others in the renewable energy sector and environment. Mhoon School in Bahrain is an initiative by IBT for children where the children begin education in their mother tongue and later are “bridged” to Urdu and English.

The other initiative with the name Swat-Kohistan Women Education Project has recently been launched in collaboration of USAID’s Small Grants Program. With a time span of one year the program is the first of its kind in Pakistan wherein 2,000 women are to be literate through their native Torwali language.

As previously stated, we still have chronic challenges and fear a Taliban return. The fragility of peace, and rise in the targeted killings in Swat plunge us into despair each and every time. Is it as if we are on the deck of the Titanic playing our pipes knowing that the ship will sink?

Zubair Torwali is a researcher, linguist and human rights activist. Born and raised in Bahrain Swat, Pakistan, he heads the Institute for Education and Development, a civil society organization working for the conservation of cultural, lingual and natural heritage among the linguistic communities in north Pakistan. Zubair was recently awarded the Prof. Anita Ghulam Ali Award of Teachers and Education in Emergencies.