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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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