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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.