Chand Bibi’s School: A Pakistani Teacher’s Courageous Quest to Educate Girls

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A young Afghan girl reading at the Chand Bibi school in Islamabad.

To truly understand the hunger for learning at Chand Bibi’s  single-room girls’ school, all it takes is a close examination of the students’ exercise books. The hand-written Urdu letters marching the width of each page are traced over three, four and sometimes five times. They are repeated in the margins, in the spaces between lines, and on the inside of the front and back covers. Chand Bibi, the teacher and founder of this informal literacy class in a slum outside of Islamabad, buys used up exercise books—all she can afford—from established schools, and gives them to her students for use during lessons.

Two dozen girls, aging from four to 12 years old, huddle in small groups over these precious books, each patiently waiting her turn to trace with a tiny pencil stub yet another Alef, or A, over the indentations in the paper made by previous students. They are wrapped in thick shawls, and sit cross-legged on a reed mat laid upon the school’s dirt courtyard. Inside the adjoining room, a concrete, windowless structure no more than 20 meters square, another three dozen women, ages 13 to 60, do the same. The room is crowded, but the women dare not step outside unveiled, lest they be spotted by the unrelated men who sometimes congregate on an adjacent rooftop—a shameful breach of honor in Pashtun communities such as this one.

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Chand, who only has one name (Bibi is an honorific, roughly equivalent to Miss), shuttles briskly between the two classrooms, her face swathed in a rose patterned scarf that only reveals her eyes. Her curriculum is limited: Koran studies, basic reading and writing, a little math, and sewing. “With my limited resources, I can’t do much more,” she says apologetically. But for her students, some 120 women and girls from Pakistan’s tribal areas forced to flee to temporary camps with their families when fighting erupted, Chand’s rudimentary classes are the only chance they have of making a better life for themselves. There are no government schools in the slum, which is home to 1300 households. Few families would allow their daughters to leave the area, even if they could afford school fees. “I want to give the girls sanctuary,” says Chand. “I want them to be able to read the Koran, to stitch clothes, to be self-sufficient, so they have something in their hands. I don’t want them to be at the mercy of men.”

Officially speaking, Pakistan has never discriminated against girls when it comes to schooling—a recently passed law guarantees free and compulsory education for all children. But Chand’s ad-hoc school is a vivid demonstration of how easy it is for girls to fall through the cracks. Pakistan ranks lowest in the world when it comes to school  enrollment . More than half the population ages 3-16 is out of school, a large majority of them girls. Many poor families depend on their daughters for income; ­ even 10-year-olds can find work as housemaids or factory workers. And in the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas fringing the border with Afghanistan, tradition frowns on mixing between the genders. “Girl’s education and the concept of honor is very interlinked in our society,” says Chand. “Society respects men who don’t allow women out to be educated. They say girls shouldn’t leave the house at all.”

Chand, 38, speaks from experience. She was born in one such family, in Mingora, the capital of Swat, where 15-year-old schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban in October for campaigning on girl’s rights to education. For the first 25 years of her life, Chand’s father denied her an education. She still has bitter memories of watching her brothers setting out for school every morning while she stayed at home. To assuage the pain, she often  arranged the family’s four chairs in rows, and invited her female cousins over for ‘lessons.’ At 25 she finally found the courage to sneak out of the house under the guise of shopping errands to attend a non-traditional school in Mingora.

She couldn’t attend government schools, since she was considered too old. At age 30 she graduated from 5th grade, the first woman in her family to get an education. By the time she was 34 she passed the equivalency exam for 12th grade. And then she started teaching for real. Her tenure as a teacher in Mingora was cut short, however. In 2009 the Taliban, which had been slowly making inroads in the area, formally took over and banned girls’ education. Not long after, war descended on Swat with the government forces lining up against the Taliban, and she fled with her family, along with thousands of other residents, for a temporary camp near Islamabad that has evolved into what is now called the Mingora Mud Colony.

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The slum, a low-lying area of stagnant puddles, is draped in a heavy dung fire haze. Women in dust color burqas scuttle through the narrow alleys, nearly indistinguishable from the slumping mud walls of the slum’s hovels. But once inside Chand’s small compound, they blossom into a riot of color, simultaneously kicking off their plastic sandals and shrugging away their burqas in an elegant twirl as they settle in for the morning lessons. The burqas are traditional, but they are also an effective disguise. Like Chand, these women too must hide their education from their husbands and fathers. Chand charges a pittance for classes, ­ two dollars a month, but even then not all students can afford it, so she lets them study for free. She has sought funding and supplies from both federal and provincial officials and has been snubbed each time. Nor does she get help from religious institutions.

Chand never married, something almost unheard of in Pashtun culture. That status has given her the freedom to pursue her dream of teaching, but it also leaves her vulnerable. Men in the community who are suspicious of her motives constantly threaten her. But, she says, she leaves her life in Allah’s hand, and she knows she is doing the right thing. “I read the Pashtun translation of the Koran, and I know girls have the same rights to education as boys,” she says. Now, when someone threatens her, she makes a point of walking directly in front of his door to show that she is not scared.  The shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl by a Taliban assassin in October shooting rattled Chand, as it did many in Pakistan. But the fact that Malala survived, and has gone on to become a global symbol of girls’ rights to education, has been a blessing for the country, says Chand. “Now, I think, more families will send their girls to school. I can even see a day when a Pashtun girl being educated will be an honor, not a shame.”

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Chand could have returned to Swat, and her old teaching job, two years ago. But she has decided to stay with her school in the Mingora Mud Colony, despite the constant struggle to stay open, and keep her students in second-hand exercise books. In Swat, she says, minds are changing, and more and more families are opening up to girls’ education. Not so in the Mud Colony, where poverty has calcified notions of honor and tradition. “Here, the minds are generations behind, so we need more help,” says Chand, as she watches her younger students pore over a ragged textbook.” There is a stain on my heart that I was illiterate for so long, and I don’t want to see these girls have the same stain on their hearts.”  For these women and girls, slowly sounding out the letters that will eventually form words, it is clear that stain is lifting.

With reporting by Aoun Sahi/Islamabad