Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Standing ovation for Saba

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“When I ended my speech, everyone clapped.” The lovely doe-eyed Saba Mallah said with such beautiful simplicity. “They stood up to clap for me,” she added. I asked her if she knew that a standing ovation was better than just an ordinary applause. She hadn’t on this past Women’s Day but soon after she learned what a standing ovation meant.

I asked her how she felt for the applause and she said looking at those nearly 400 delegates clapping for her she broke into tears. “I was so happy for myself that I wept.” They were clapping for her in New York where she had spoken for 10 minutes on the rights of the girl child in her native Sindh, 10,000 km east of the venue. As the hall rose and the applause resounded, Saba thought of the time when she will be grown up and will have done what she wants to do.

“Then the applause for me will be even greater than the one at New York!” The tiny village of Yusuf Mallah, where Saba was born 16 years ago, is a right picturesque place in Sujawal district of southern Sindh. Sitting by the side of a water channel in flat, forested country studded with lakes spangled with lotus, it is thickly shaded by trees where the koel and papiha sing above the noisy arguments of hordes of starlings. The houses of wattle and mud plaster have pitched roofs with pillared verandas in front and the utter lack of brick and mortar give the whole village the prospect of an 18th century painting. The scene is replete with fields ablaze with sunflower blossom surrounding the village.

Amid this beauty lives the ugliness of official neglect: there is no school in village Yusuf Mallah. And that is not all. Though the village is on the electricity grid, it has more hours of the day without power than with. There is no water supply; potable water being obtained by hand pumps, and though there is no sewerage, one cannot help but wonder how they manage to keep the village so clean.

Born to a school teacher father (now retired) and an illiterate mother who worked as farm labourer, Saba, one of eight siblings, had always been fascinated by the written word. For the first five grades, young Saba daily walked a couple of kilometres to a nearby village dreaming great dreams of being an educated working woman one day. But after she took her exam, it seemed her education as well as her dreams were stalled in a cul de sac. Despite all the support of her parents, there was no way she could be sent walking six kilometres to the nearest middle school.

When she was called to the podium, Saba broke into a sweat. Once there, she hardly looked at the sheet in front. But then somewhere something went right. The NGOs Plan International, part of the United Nations and Sindh Agricultural and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organisation teamed up to take non-formal middle level education to villages where no schools existed. And so in 2012, when she had been out of school for a year, Saba enrolled in the centre operating in one room lent by a family with space to spare. While some of her 43 peers struggled with English, Science, Social Studies, Urdu and Sindhi, our bright spark raced ahead to reach grade eight.

“If there hadn’t been this school in our village, my one year break in education would have been the end of it. I would have remained home like the generation before me and would have been making cow dung patties waiting to be wedded at 15.” Saba had only some years earlier seen a 12 year-old wedded to a considerably older man and suffer in childbirth. She also knew of that unfortunate young woman’s maltreatment at the hands of her husband and in-laws. Her young and active mind wondered if that woman would have been treated any differently had her parents waited for her to reach the right age for matrimony. Or if her tormenting husband had known there was someone to stand for the helpless soul.

That someone who would defend such women in matrimonial misfortune would be she herself as a lawyer, young Saba told herself. Hajiani, whose misfortune Saba knew of first-hand and which was painfully ingrained on her mind, was not a rare case. Child marriage is rampant in Sindh and she knew every village had dozens of cases like Hajiani’s. For most parents, the girl child was simply a burden: no good for any investment in and best to be disposed of in marriage as soon as possible. Saba knew the crusade she was going to fight as a lawyer.

Early this year, two dozen girls of rural backgrounds from across Pakistan were interviewed by Plan International to shortlist two to address a forum on International Women’s Day at the United Nations head office in New York. Saba was one of the two bright lights; the other being from a village near Chakwal.

The speech was to be in English and understandably, with her rural background and non-formal education, Saba could not write it out herself. But there was no dearth of clarity of thought. She dictated every word to be translated into English; every word of what she was to tell the delegates in New York on the eighth day of March.

When she was called to the podium, Saba broke into a sweat. Once there, she hardly looked at the sheet in front. For ten minutes Saba Mallah of a village that only recently got on the electric grid, spoke in English with a heavy Sindhi accent on the evils of child marriage. She told the audience comprising of ambassadors, officials, executives and ordinary people, four hundred strong, how she hoped to earn her degree in law and fight against this worst form of familial oppression. And then she wept at the standing ovation.

Thereafter she had the famous and the powerful lining up to shake her hand. And then there was the flurry of sight-seeing tours of New York which just six weeks later seemed a distant dream to Saba. Her immediate dream, one she dreams with focussed singularity, is to finish high school and get into college so that her law degree comes one step closer.

“I will fight for the rights of poor people, because I come from a poor family,” says Saba. “And if I ever make good money, I’ll gift some of it to those who are less fortunate than me.”

We have all heard this being said before. But one look into those deep, dark doe-eyes of this beautiful child living in a village that we don’t even know exists, and one knows that this time it is for real. Saba Mallah who has reached the eighth grade against all odds must and will succeed.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 28 April 2014 at 15:38, Anonymous Atta Ur Rehman Sheikh said...

Moving story, with a fabulous portrait!!

At 22 May 2014 at 23:07, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done Saba - May Allah bless you

At 15 September 2015 at 11:26, Blogger Saleem Tunio said...

I know Saba D/o Abdullah a retired school teacher. They belongs a poor Mallah caste at Sujawal district. During running the RHIA project, she was also took part in all adolescent activities. This is very wonderful to me that such remote area girl has achieve her reward. Saleem Tunio


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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