Pakistan: Cobwebs in the mind

South Asia Citizen's Wire
What are we to make of the President's stated commitment to women's rights, as articulated on several occasions ...
... most recently at his much applauded address to a women's convention in Islamabad on Saturday - even as the departments and institutions of the country he heads, appear stubbornly determined to denigrate these very rights?
Take the Federal Curriculum Wing, currently in the thick of an ongoing controversy regarding textbook reform in the country. There has been much debate on how Pakistani textbooks foment hatred and bigotry against non-Muslims, particularly against India. How the textbooks do this has been well documented in the publication The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, published by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad last year.

This report is currently the subject of a heated debate between those who find bigotry and hate being propagated not just the madrassah level but also through government school textbooks, and those who think that there is no problem with these textbooks.

Let us, for the moment, fall in with the second category, ignore the numerous examples cited in the Subversion study, and conclude that Pakistani textbooks actually promote the values of communal and religious harmony, and include no hate material whatsoever.

But how do they fare on gender issues? Even here, to present a positive picture we would have to disregard the study's chapter 'Gender Biases and Stereotypes in School Texts'. We would have to dismiss the chapter authors' claims that the producers of Pakistani textbooks 'are actively resistant to the idea of women's rights and believe in the preservation of the status quo'.

Their citation of the 1959 Report of the Commission on National Education would also need to be discarded, since they say it views women not as individuals and equal citizens in their own right, but only as wives and mothers, ignoring all the other categories. Without going into the merits of the argument about women's status beyond wifehood and motherhood, we could say that 1959 was a long time ago.

Do later textbooks reflect the increasing participation of women in the public and professional spheres over the years? The Gender Biases chapter says not. Leave aside its examination of how school texts perpetuated gender biases under the Zia regime - a 1985 study found that girls were shown most often in passive roles, enforcing traditional stereotypes - after all, it's been over 15 years since Gen Zia left us and 'democracy' was 'restored'.

Moving on to more recent times, let us also discard the Gender Biases chapter conclusion that matters have not improved and that a 'gender biased division of roles is woven into almost all the exercises and stories in these books, thus we have constant references to men performing active and/or heroic roles and women engaged in passive, often frippery activities' But in that case, can someone please explain the Federal Curriculum Wing's refusal to incorporate the late journalist Najma Babar's article 'Madam Chairman, Sir', in a proposed Class Ten English textbook submitted by the Sindh Textbook Board?

To give some background on this baffling bit of censorship, the Sindh Education Department under the committed educationist Prof. Anita Ghulam Ali, commissioned senior English language teaching (ELT) experts to formulate new English language textbooks for Classes 8-12 - part of an effort to update a course that has not changed in over forty years.

The new textbooks include material that would make the learning of English more interesting, accessible and friendly for Pakistani students, most of whom struggle with it as a foreign and a second language.

The Sindh Textbook Board duly sent the new proposed textbooks for approval to the Federal Curriculum Wing. However, the Curriculum Wing rejected much of the new material and provided a list of topics that the new English textbooks should include - like drug abuse, traffic rules, festivals of Pakistan and so on - topics that are certain to excite the students' imaginations and get them interested in learning? At the same time, they also want classics like Shakespeare and Jane Austen included in these textbooks. Brilliant though the works of both writers is, their appropriateness for young non-native speakers of English is questionable.

But it is the material that was removed from these proposed English textbooks that should particularly concern those fighting for a curriculum that promotes the values of equality, peace, religious harmony and gender rights.

Among the pieces to get axed was Najma Babar's 'Madam Chairman, Sir', in which she describes how her husband got the children ready for school and looked after them, in the days when she had a job and he didn't. Also axed was Dina Wadia's essay remembering her august father the Quaid-e-Azam, the satirical poem 'Mrs Lorris Died of Being Cleanî', the short play, 'Never on a Wednesday' and an essay on the Bermuda Triangle, as well as a poem by Khalil Jibran.

Why these pieces should have been removed when their inclusion was recommended by ELT experts, is unclear. What is clear is that major overhauls are required - not just in the curriculum wing, but also in the minds of those running it.

by Beena Sarwar
Published in The News International [Pakistan], on March 21, 2004.