Making Education a National Narrative in Pakistan

It is unlikely that Pakistan will ever revisit its priorities and make education a national priority.



A nongovernmental nationwide education campaign in Pakistan, Alif Ailaan, recently launched a new report 25 Million Broken Promises: The Crisis of Pakistan’s Out-of-School Children.

The very title of the report points to the fact that in Pakistan 25 million children are out of school. In the 193 countries in world only Nigeria lags behind Pakistan in this “honor.” Along with other wanting measures, Alif Ailaan recommends “generating a national narrative on education” in order to save Pakistan from an imminent uneducated future.

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, helped Pakistan improve its image in the international community. Yet in spite of her efforts and the tireless work of others, the education narrative has not permeated Pakistani society. In addition, the rise in polio cases is distorting Pakistan’s image even further and undermining efforts made by Malala to enhance Pakistan’s image.

Forces known but unseen chalk out Pakistan’s national narrative. The political parties and civil society organizations along with the media are the agencies to make that national narrative current among the masses. This narrative has always remained tilted in favor of the extremist and conservative forces. The unseen forces have always found religious and political bands in Pakistan that carry the discourse to every corner in the country using the lever of faith, and creating conspiracy theories associated with the Pakistan’s unending insecurity phobia.

In Pakistan national security as the military defines it has overshadowed every other concern. Since this notion of the national security is based on a religious construct, religion has been made the most vital drive in the lives of ordinary Pakistanis despite the fact that it is permanently manipulated by the feudal, clergy and capitalist segments of the society for their own personal and political interests.

This is the reason that the Taliban narrative is now prevailing in the society. Malala Yousafzai couldn’t win the hearts of Pakistanis even though she almost sacrificed her life. She is now an icon of education the world over but in Pakistan she is still deemed an “agent” of the West by the majority. A resolution in lauding Malala’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize got stuck in the assembly of the northwestern province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while the same assembly passed another in favor of Aafia Siddiqui, an al-Qaeda suspect jailed in the US, almost unanimously late this October.

Pakistan has always been put in an identity crisis by design. Even the well-off Pakistani expatriates in Canada could not bear a school in Malala’s name in their community. I doubt if Malala’s donation of the World Children Prize money to rebuild 65 schools in Gaza can make her what she actually is, a young brave crusader for education, in her home country.

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The high level of bias in Pakistani media became evident during the recent sit-ins in Islamabad by two political parties, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) led by the cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) led by moderate Pakistani-Canadian cleric Tahirul Qadri. The protests in the so-called Red Zone in Pakistan’s capital diverted the media attention, and consequently, of the people from very pertinent and pressing issues, even from the military operation, Zarb-e-Azab, launched June this year, against the Taliban in North Waziristan in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas—FATA.

Meanwhile the turmoil in Pakistan’s southern province, Balochistan, and in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was altogether forgotten by the powerful electronic media. Daily reports of target killings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and terrorism in Balochistan are no man’s concern. In Balochistan more than 70,000 children have abandoned their education because of sectarian and ethnic strife. Children, especially girls, are threatened by the militants of dire consequences if they continue going to schools. The situation in parts of Balochistan is as it was in Pakistan’s Swat Valley in 2008-09 against which Malala stood, suffered but duly acclaimed by the world.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa target killing of the peace and social workers is now a routine but all our media is diverted to the sit-ins and agitation by PTI and PAT. Many in Pakistan resent this attitude of the political parties, military and media. The power structure of Pakistan rests in Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, which wields most of the political and military power in the country. The long but fully covered and secured protests by two Punjabi leaders against a Punjab-dominated federal government is deemed a power struggle to get Punjab [read Pakistan] at the behest of the military. This struggle has made the nation hostage and put terrorism, polio and education on the back burner.

Amidst this mishmash it is unlikely that Pakistan will ever revisit its priorities and put education on the top by making it a national concern.

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. Read other articles by Zubair.