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October 23, 2017
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Children at Mubarika Campus, Marrara Sharif, Narrowal District, Punjab, Pakistan. Photograph by Mohsin Khawar.
Malala Yusufzai. Source: theguardian.com.

Malala Yusufzai, now 16, is a schoolgirl from turbulent Swat, Pakistan. Her pro-education blog for the BBC led to a violent attack that shocked the world as the Taliban shot her in the head on her way home from school. The Burka Avenger is the female superhero star of an animated series that recently started airing in Pakistan: Jiya is a fictitious village schoolteacher who dons a controversial black burqa to defend her school and pupils from oppressors.

Related: A chat with the creator of Jiya, The Burka Avenger.

The parallels are considerable; both Malala and Jiya promote education and use their books and pens as weapons. Both have achieved cult status yet experienced significant backlash. And both are instrumental in bringing Pakistan's education crises to a global platform, particularly concerning young girls in remote, tribal and rural areas.

Dressed in a modest pink shalwar kameez (traditional long tunic with side slits accompanied by baggy pants) accessorized with a shawl of Benazir Bhutto’s presented to her by Bhutto’s daughter Aseefa, Malala addressed the UN Youth Assembly on "Malala Day," stating, "Let us pick up our books and pens[.] They are our most powerful weapons[.] One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution."

Alarmingly, only 46% of the female population is literate [and] more than 24 million children remain out of school, the majority of which are girls.

While elevated to heroine status worldwide, Malala received substantial negativity from various critics in her own country. The outbursts, known as "Malala Backlash" and a series of "Malala Drama," range from sardonic to hateful. The criticism chiefly consists of bitterness at the global media attention on the heroic schoolgirl, which is overshadowing Pakistan's other pressing, though unrelated, issues, from civilian casualties in ongoing drone strikes to the imprisoned Afia Siddiqui to the usual CIA conspiracy theories. Not to mention the plight of other children in situations similar to Malala's who haven't received the same recognition.

Related: Lifting the veil on today's modern hijab.

Jiya, the Burka Avenger, is Pakistan's other global heroine du jour. The animated brainchild of musician Haroon Aaron Rashid has received phenomenal international coverage in recent days. But despite the intention of providing a positive, educated female heroine, much of the debate surrounding the series has focused on the oppressive nature of Jiya's burka costume and the title of the show.

In order to delve deeper into the realities of the education system in Pakistan, Laaleen Sukhera Khan talks to Izza Farrakh Satti, adviser with the UK government funded Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Education Sector Programme, and Huma Zafar, who chairs the charity school, Mubarika Campus in Narowal, Punjab via The Citizen’s Foundation and the One World Children’s Fund.

Laaleen Sukhera KhanWhat are the main obstacles and challenges for educators in remote/tribal/rural areas?

Izza Farrakh: Educators, especially in Pakistan's north-western areas, work in extremely challenging conditions[.] Major obstacles include scarce resources, the constant and consistent threat to schools by insurgents, and for women, sometimes dealing with adverse cultural norms and traditions when they step outside of their homes to work. I think these issues harden them and, as a result, they're sometimes impatient with, and insensitive to, their students.

LSK: What kind of impact do you think The Burka Avenger will have?

Huma Zafar: The show sends a positive message through a creative use of programming. I’m afraid it will impact those who are already getting an education and have access to TVs and miss the target market that needs to understand the importance of education.  

Girls at Mubarika Campus.
Photograph by Mohsin Khawar.

LSK: Do you think the character and storylines are helpful in getting the message across?

IFS: At the least, it’ll inspire young boys and girls to continue to go to school. But schools in return have to be more welcoming[.] When parents discontinue their education, these children are more than happy to stay at home because they won’t have to sit indoors in a bleak, suffocating classroom taught by intimidating teachers. 

LSK:  Malala Yusufzai has championed the cause of education worldwide. Do you think there are any limitations in the international media's coverage on educating Pakistani girls in tribal areas?

IFS: There is a common misperception that women in our tribal areas are submissive and disempowered. The tribal tradition is very respectful of women, honest and dignified. [...] Within their domestic spheres, women make all key decisions and are confident, opinionated and in their own sense, even liberated. In fact, many women are heads of families and strongly influence all decisions made by their grown sons. [M]ost parents want to educat[e] their children, even their daughters. It’s just that education doesn't really bring them much benefit[.] Very few graduates from public school are placed in a well-paying job with room for growth. 

HZ: We need to remember this is a patriarchal society and change does not come overnight. [The] cost of sending a [child] to school in extreme poverty is a major factor in the parent's decision. More often than not, the thought process is that the girl will be married, [...] so it makes sense to send a boy to school[.]  When you look at rural Pakistan dynamics, yes, culture and mindsets play a role, but a poverty stricken family will look to means [of] feeding themselves before they think about education. [U]nless education is free, or there is some sort of an incentive [for] the family, they will not be able to afford education.

LSK: How grim are the statistics regarding children's education in Pakistan?

HZ: Pakistan is facing an educational emergency crisis and at present will not be meeting its MDG Goals. Pakistan ranks 113 out of 120 countries in UNESCO's Education for All Education Development Index. Alarmingly, only 46% of the female population is literate, out of which only 18% have acquired higher or secondary education [and] more than 24 million children remain out of school, the majority of which are girls.

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