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: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.