THE EXPRESS TRIBUNE, 04th OCTOBER 2013:-
I was born almost a year after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to an Air Force family. Hence, my entire schooling was done in schools run by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) during General Ziaul Haq’s regime.
My first school was the PAF school in Sargodha and my English teacher resembled Shaista Zaid, the English news anchor on Pakistan Television (PTV), the only channel aired in the country at the time.
Although most people remember General Zia’s regime as oppressive and restrictive, my memories of school years are somewhat different. I studied in a co-education school, where boys and girls shared the two-person desks in class. In fact, girls and boys were discouraged from making same-sex groups and were encouraged to socialise with members of the opposite sex.
I still remember a concert I participated in on Parents Day when I was in grade one. We were going to perform on a poem about a train, in which all the participants acted as the compartments of a train. Hence, we all had to form a human chain with our arms wrapped around each other. I know of many parents and teachers, in the so-called liberal environment of today, who would shudder at the thought of boys and girls hugging each other, even at the innocent age of five or six years. However, not back then; at the time when General Zia ruled the country, children were just children and there were no such restrictions.
What I am trying to say is that if there was ‘Islamisation‘ in those times, it did not affect students in the way that it has in times of today; the din over teaching Comparative Religionsin schools and the whole NUST dress code tumult would not have been an issue in Zia’s time.
Being brought up in the cantonment areas and army bases, we, the Air Force Babies, often referred to as AFBs, had the freedom to play, cycle and swim to our heart’s content.
I was fortunate enough to spend my teenage years in Peshawer, some time from the latter half of the 1980s to the mid-1990s. This statement may seem absurd to teenagers today and they may wonder what fun there could be in a bomb- ridden, fundamentalist city like Peshawar. However, I studied in a co-educated school and although dupattas were required as a cultural norm, we were as liberal as it gets. Girls and boys were encouraged to befriend each other and even in sports we had both, boys and girls, on the same teams! I still remember the many volley ball matches I participated in side by side with boys while studying in Peshawer.
Other than just providing education, the British Council in Peshawer used to be a happening place for youngsters and most schools arranged weekly trips to Gora Bazaar where we would indulge in a vast collection of smuggled books. Students also participated in the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)volunteer programs regularly and even went on animal saving expeditions.
The only ‘Shariah-imposition’ I remember from the time, was the inter-college Quran quiz competition, which was part of the week-long Ramazan celebrations and even this seemingly academic exercise always included celebrations and fairs such as the Meena Bazaar.
Then, during Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ era, I joined the PAF as an officer, along with some forty other women. This was a feat unheard of in the patriarchal Training Academy of Risalpur, in the heart of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. During my stint, I met many of my male childhood friends and trained alongside them. I truly believe that this confidence and vigour to be at par with men has been inculcated through the schooling system of my time.
However, unfortunately, times have changed and the change has been very drastic in Pakistan. Instead of evolving as a nation, we have become radicalised. The seeds ofextremism, intolerance and discrimination, allegedly sown in the Zia Regime have suddenly sprung up. The schools we loved so much have become unrecognisable. Many have been reduced to rubble while the rest have separate classes and separate benches for boys and girls. There are no sports grounds in schools any more, and physical trainers have not been hired in government schools in ages.
Without any inter-mingling, girls and boys are being moulded into less confident, less aware, more intolerant beings – lacking an understanding of the basic norms of co-existence. Increasingly, the word co-education seems to be a luxury enjoyed in the universities and private schools in bigger cities of the country. Only time will tell what the fate of that luxury will be.
In the past the essence of the school system, apart from imparting quality education, was to make girls and boys more confident, and improve their understanding of each other. However, the current system encourages them to view members of the opposite sex suspiciously. This increasing tendency to restrict and regulate students can only result in producing a nation of ‘yes’ people. However, since the youth has a tendency to defy rules, this can also give rise to young people who outwardly adhere to the rules while they indulge in forbidden acts behind closed doors.
The question is what do we want our children to be? Do we want them to have more confidence, leadership skills and honesty or would we rather rear a more outwardly agreeable but less truthful and less self-assured generation?