3:15am

Sun January 6, 2013
Asia

After Fighting To Go To School, A Pakistani Woman Builds Her Own

Originally published on Wed March 20, 2013 7:32 am

Humaira Bachal, 25, has become a crusader of sorts. She has a passion for education in a country where going door-to-door asking fathers to send their daughters to school can mean risking your life.

"Education is a basic need and a fundamental right for every human being," she says. "I want to change the way my community looks at education, and I will continue to do this until my last breath."

It's hard not to worry about Bachal after the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the teenager attacked by the Taliban last October in northern Pakistan for speaking out in support of girls' education. Malala was released Friday from a British hospital and is expected to remain in Britain for at least the next few years.

Bachal, meanwhile, recently starred in a documentary series in which her efforts to educate children in her Karachi neighborhood of Moach Goth were the centerpiece.

Pakistan's first Oscar-winning filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, made six short films over the past year, each focusing on an extraordinary Pakistani. Bachal was one of them.

On screen, Bachal looks larger than life and is unnervingly bold. In person, she is barely 5 feet tall. She is self-assured, but also a little shy. She says her advocacy work actually began with herself.

"After I had finished primary school, my father didn't want me to get any education," she says. "He said I was only going to get married and have children."

Sneaking Off To School

But Bachal and her mother had other ideas. While her mother wasn't particularly educated, her family in Iran had been. All of her mother's sisters had gone on to higher education; Bachal's mother thought her daughters should get educations, too.

For three years, Bachal's mother dissembled when asked direct questions about where her daughter was all day. And for three years, while Bachal attended middle school in another part of Karachi, her father had no idea what his daughter was doing.

He discovered the ruse just before Bachal was going to sit for the ninth-grade entrance examination — and Bachal said her father was furious.

"He beat my mother, and he even beat me," she said.

Her father was not a man of education. He drove a truck and is illiterate, and saw no reason why his daughter should waste time on school.

Again, Bachal's mother intervened. She told her daughter to sit for the ninth-grade exam while she tried to calm her husband at home. When Bachal passed the examination, her father eventually relented.

Ninth grade, Bachal says, opened her eyes. She looked around Moach Goth area, and all she saw were children playing in the streets. None of them were in school. None of them were studying. And Bachal, 14 years old at that time, thought that was wrong.

"Education of girls — this is not just today's issue; it is a historical issue," says Roshan Chitrakar, a deputy director and program specialist in education at UNESCO in Islamabad. "One of the things we've been trying to do is bring a perspective to these people that educating a girl is a valuable investment. We have to bring some sort of change to the culture, some sort of change to the thinking of the people."

Few Girls Attend School

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari vowed during a recent UNESCO event in Paris to raise $10 million to educate all Pakistani girls by 2015, but few think the goal is achievable.

"Pakistan is not doing well" in this regard, Chitrakar says. "We have some improvements, but not in the way or at the pace we'd need to see change to make that goal of 2015."

The numbers are stark. Pakistan spends half as much as neighboring India on education. If you are a young girl in rural Pakistan, you are unlikely ever to see the inside of a classroom.

Across the country, only 57 percent of children even enroll in primary school. Fewer than half of those children complete grade five — and the numbers are even worse in the countryside.

Bachal wanted to change all that — or at least do her part in her village. So she started recruiting students in her neighborhood for a small private school she had opened, and she went door-to-door to convince fathers to send their kids to school.

Establishing A School In A Slum

The campaign was successful. Bachal now runs a school with 22 teachers and 1,200 students. And, thanks to the Chinoy documentary, she is one of the most famous school advocates in the country — which begs the question of whether, in the wake of the Malala shooting, she's worried.

"Just the opposite," she said. "I am not worried about this anymore. Now I'm not afraid. It is not just one Malala or one Bachal who has raised a voice to change this situation. There are a lot of other girls who are trying to change things. Even if they kill 100 Humairas, they won't be able to stop us."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Pakistan, girls education made front-page headlines this past fall when a 15-year-old education activist named Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban in northwest Pakistan. Her crime: defying the Taliban by encouraging girls to go to school. Malala, who was released from the hospital last week, has become a symbol for school reform in Pakistan.

And as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, there are a number of education activists picking up where Malala left off.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: In Pakistan, 25-year-old Humaira Bachal has become a crusader.

HUMAIRA BACHAL: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Education is a basic need and a fundamental right for every human being, she says. I want to change the way my community looks at education, and I will continue this struggle until my last breath.

(Foreign language spoken)

That's from a documentary series that aired here in Pakistan this fall. It came from Pakistan's first award-winning filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy. There were six films, each focusing on an extraordinary Pakistani, and Humaira was one of them.

On screen, Humaira looks larger than life - and bold. In person, she is barely five feet tall; self-assured but also a little shy. She says her advocacy work began with herself in an area of Karachi called Moach Goth.

BACHAL: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: After primary school my father said I didn't need anymore education, she says. He said that I was only going to go out and get married and have children.

But Humaira and her mother had other ideas. She began attending middle school secretly. Her father didn't find out until three years later, when he discovered that she was going to sit for the 9th grade entrance examination.

BACHAL: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: My father was furious, she says. He beat me and he beat my mother.

But Humaira sat for the 9th grade entrance exam anyway, and eventually her father relented. Ninth grade, Humaira says, opened her eyes. She realized that in the area where she lived, the children were all playing in the streets - they weren't in school. And Humaira, at the age of 14, thought that was wrong.

ROSHAN CHITRAHAR: Education of girls, this is not today's issue. It's a historical issue, right?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Roshan Chitrahar. He leads the U.N.'s education program in Pakistan.

CHITRAHAR: And we have to bring, you know, a perspective to these people that educating a girl is a valuable investment. And we have to think about some sort of change in the culture; thinking, and the thinking of the people.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that was what Humaira decided to do. She started recruiting students in her neighborhood for a small private school she had opened.

BACHAL: Salaam alaikum.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Going door to door, she met with fathers who did not want their daughters to go to school.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BACHAL: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BACHAL: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: It is a waste to give education to women, one father told Humaira. But if they have dinner on the table when I come home, they can go to school.

The door to door campaign was successful. Humaira now runs a school with 22 teachers and 1200 students. And thanks to the documentary, she is one of the most famous school advocates in the country. I asked her if she was worried about her advocacy in the wake of the shooting of 15-year-old Malala in October. Just the opposite, she said.

BACHAL: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: I am not worried about this anymore. Now I'm not afraid, she says. It is not just one Malala or one Humaira who raised a voice to change this situation. There are a lot of other girls who are trying to change things, she says. And with a smile, she adds, even if they kill 100 Humairas, they won't be able to stop us.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Lahore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.