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.