Fighting To Learn In Pakistan

by Jessie Roberts

Rahul Bhattacharya profiles Humaira Bachal, a woman who has devoted her life to educating her community in Pakistan:

What would become the Dream Model Street School began in 2001, with one blackboard, at home. Humaira taught ten friends of her age, seven of them girls. She started with the alphabet, in Urdu and English, and proceeded to the names of things. She supplied blank pages from her own notebooks, until it got her into trouble with her teachers. Then the friends went round asking people to donate paper, or bought scrap.

Soon, Tahira, who was 11, and three other girls were teaching alongside Humaira. “We were militant about time. Time for study, time for play, time to eat—and time to go out and recruit. We didn’t have the sense to realise we didn’t have space, books, teachers, money. We went around to houses, telling people, ‘We’ve opened a school, send your children, you must send your children!'”

A short film released on YouTube this year, “Humaira, Dreamcatcher”, demonstrates the challenges of this recruitment.

It’s the work of an Oscar-winning Pakistani-Canadian documentary-maker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, whose crew have been following the lives of Pakistani women fighting for change. Twelve years after the school started, the film shows local men still making their points: for girls to study is not our culture; they will be stared at while going to school; what use is educating a girl when she is only going to marry and run a house? Permissions, given reluctantly, are withdrawn easily.

Yet by 2003 Humaira’s team had enrolled over 150 children. The students could no longer fit into the Bachals’ home, so the young teachers decided to rent. They took a 240-square-foot plot with two sorry rooms surrounded by mounds of mud. They levelled the ground themselves, erected wooden poles and strung up discarded flour sacks for shade. These collapsed in the rain. Someone suggested they use Panaflex signboards in place of the sacks. But the wooden poles would not take the weight. Somebody else suggested they use iron pipes, so they found a welder who helped rig them up. Finally, the shelter stood.