A bad few weeks for girls' schools in Pakistan

Blasphemy and mob rule in Lahore.

It has been a bad few weeks for girls’ schools in Pakistan. The shooting of 15 year old educational activist Malala Yousafzai in October sent shockwaves through the country. Other female activists spoke out about being targeted, and the spotlight has been placed on the Taliban’s numerous attacks on girls trying to get an education.

The latest incident was the burning down of the Farooqi Girls’ High School in Lahore on Thursday. This was not the doing of the Taliban, but an angry mob. Why? Because a teacher, Arfa Iftikhar, had allegedly set a piece of homework that contained derogatory references to the Prophet Muhammad. Iftikhar has been forced into hiding, while the 77 year old principal of the school, Asim Farooqi, has been detained for 14 days on blasphemy charges. At the protests on Thursday, the mob distributed photocopies of the offending homework, and broke and burnt everything they could lay their hands upon. Unsurprisingly, the school has been closed ever since.
Blasphemy is an extremely inflammatory issue in Pakistan. Insulting the Prophet or the Quran can carry the death penalty, while even the suggestion that blasphemy has taken place is enough to trigger violent outburst of public anger. Not a single newspaper has specified exactly what the alleged blasphemy is – indeed, to do so could lead to fresh charges being directed at the publishers. On this basis, accusers can even refuse to repeat the blasphemy in court, leading to a situation that would be farcical were it not so dangerous. The light burden of proof means that the law is often used to settle scores – indeed, it has been suggested that this charge could be a plot against the school, which is one of the most successful in Lahore. The complaint was lodged by Abdullah Saqib, the vice principal of Jamia Kareemia Sadidia, a religious school in the same area.
Possible conspiracies aside, what does this incident tell us? First of all, women and girls are ready to defend their right to be educated. Following the violence of the mob reaction, around 2,000 students, parents and teachers took to the streets on Saturday to demand that the school reopen. The crowd, predominantly made up of teenage girls, carried placards and chanted slogans including “release our principal”. Just like the reaction to the Malala shooting, this demonstrates that society is not willing to compromise on its right to educate its daughters, whether the threat is coming from armed militants or from an angry mob.
Secondly, it shows that the tide has not turned against blasphemy laws. After a cleric was found to have fabricated blasphemy charges against Rimsha Masih, a Christian child with Downs Syndrome, many national and international commentators suggested that a turning point may have been reached. Yet it would be naïve to think that this was not a hugely popular law, despite widespread revulsion at the Rimsha case. Since reform is entirely off the table, following the assassination of two politicians who spoke out against blasphemy laws last year, hope for reducing its power to inflame violence and attack minorities can only lie in making its application fairer. Charges were recently issued against Muslims who attacked a Hindu temple – an unusual move – with several other cases against Muslims following suit. While no arrests were made, it was a very small step towards rationalising the law. Prosecuting those who make false allegations or take the law into their own hands would be more significant ways of bringing the law under control. It is worth noting that Saqib, who lodged the complaint, told the domestic media that he had met with local clerics and residents to decide to pursue the case legally: “We tried to stop the violent protesters, because they bring a bad name to our religion.”
Yet this brings us to the third point: religious issues are extremely, extremely sensitive in Pakistan. Despite Saqib’s apparent desire to avoid violence, one of the Farooqi School’s administrators claimed that statements about the supposed blasphemy had been made in local mosques with the aim of inflaming the public. Blasphemy is an issue that can mobilise people instantly, with the accused not only presumed guilty as soon as the word “blasphemer” has been uttered, but frequently losing their lives to mob violence before they’ve had a chance to be sentenced to death. In a country with such high levels of poverty and deprivation, discontent and unrest is frequently bubbling below the surface, waiting to explode. According to reports, many of the protestors did not even know what they were protesting about. With little hope for reform of the law and no sign of the authorities seeking to clampdown on rioters, it is difficult to see the situation improving any time soon.
More than anything else, this incident demonstrates that Pakistani citizens have to contend not only with militants and their acts of terrorism, but with the regressive streak of thought that runs through society, and the rumbling discontent which means that violence can break out at any moment. For the girls in Lahore who will not be going to school tomorrow morning, it makes little difference that their school was destroyed not by the Taliban, but by citizens supposedly supporting a piece of state legislation.
Students of Farooqi Girls' School in Lahore demand its re-opening (Photo: Getty Images)

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation