Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A gutsy crusader

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A lesser woman in remote Seejbun in Swat’s Matta sub-division would have given up. In fact, she would have been born resigned to the usual fate of domestic confinement and a long, inconsequential life. That, so she was always told, was Pakhtun culture. Part of this baggage was also to be wedded as soon as she attained puberty. That was the way for the young women in Seejbun.

But Gul Khandana was born different. After she finished primary school in the only girls’ school miles away from her village, the pressure from uncles and older cousins was for her to be restricted to the home. Fortunately, she had a brother younger than her and unable to exert pressure. She also enjoyed her father’s support and was thus able to join the local boys’ high school to complete her middle level education at age 17. Still a long way to being educated, Gul resolved to become a teacher.

During her time in primary school, she was rankled by the periodic absence of the sole teacher running the school. The teacher’s illness or social commitment meant a school day lost. While her mates rejoiced at any such situation, Gul hated missing lessons. Even as a very young child, she resolved to do something about this situation. She knew she had to be a teacher so there could be someone to take the place of the absent one.

In a country where the sacred assignment of teaching is stop-gap for men looking for better careers and something that only bored housewives do, Gul Khandana was a rarity.

And so in 1987, with just eight grades of education and still a year too young to be employed by the government, Gul Khandana began to teach in the girls’ primary school at the neighbouring village of Miankallai. In a country where rules are broken for all the wrong reasons and are religiously adhered to for every right reason, our young teacher, unable to make the salary roles, taught gratis. The primary school teacher’s pay in those days was a meagre Rs700, and Gul’s father insisted that he would pay her the sum monthly if she only gave up the labour.

“I told my father he may well pay me, but when I wed and go to my husband’s home he most likely won’t. I would need my salary to be independent and a job might not be forthcoming then,” says Gul. She kept at it and the following year, after working a year for free, became a regular government employed teacher. For two years she daily walked the one hour to school in Miankallai and one back, but the dedication of this remarkable young woman never flagged.

In 1989, Gul transferred to her own alma mater in Seejbun. It had come a long way from the years she had spent here for now she joined a staff of two other teachers. However, the rolls barely crossed a hundred odd names — the same as when she was a student. With a laugh Gul says that men in their village were taleemi dehshatgard — educational terrorists: they were against education for the girl child.

The following year when she wedded, she discovered that her husband was one among those who objected to her work. It was not Pakhtun culture, he said, that a woman should leave the house to make a living. Using her charm and good sense, Gul won over her father-in-law and continued her work. With time, her husband fell in line. In fact, time came when he insisted she continue her education encouraging her to work through the grades to get her post-graduate degree in Islamic Studies.

For almost two decades, Gul worked to raise enrolment in her school. Then, just when she thought she had it going good with 300 students, things went bad. The year was 2006.

The real terrorists turned up in her village. It all began with radio broadcasts telling women to remain in their homes and that if they wished to come to school, pupils regardless of age, and faculty were to be fully draped in the all concealing burka. Emboldened by government inertia, the radio soon announced that education was forbidden for the girl child. Then one dreaded day they came: men long-haired and masked, armed to the teeth and speaking another dialect of Pakhtu. They came to physically threaten school-going girls.

As the principal of her school, Gul resisted, instructing her pupils to continue to attend classes. After four encounters with her, the terrorists returned with the intention of burning down the school. In their way stood a doughty woman who, despite knowing their ruthless savagery, told them they would have to walk over her burned body. She boldly stared them down. The men faltered and then Gul delivered her coup de grace: if the girls do not finish grade five, they cannot enter the seminary.

The leader phoned someone for instructions. And then they left to never again threaten Gul Khandana or her school.

When the army went for the terrorists it was open war in Seejbun. The girls’ school took a mortar shell and sustained some damage. People in their homes were injured, some of them, Gul’s students. And when the army marched into the village, the terrorists had long since vanished. Seeing her school, the only one that had not been blown up by the terrorists, the army took Gul to be on the wrong side of the law. Her interrogation regarding the whereabouts of the outlaws once again brought out the gutsy crusader in Gul.

Her gaze level, her voice unfaltering, she said what needed to be said: that as an educationist she had nothing to do with the bad guys and that as keepers of the country’s sovereignty, the men in uniform were bound by duty to know where and when the threat to the country was coming from. By and by, she gained the army’s respect to eventually get the full support of the local commander.

In Seejbun teachers were disparaged for being ‘only teachers’. But when the brigade commander rose to receive her with a salute, the village looked on in awe. Gul says it was like a switch being thrown. Of a sudden the attitude changed. Today, teachers are among the most respected members of this small community.

Gul Khandana’s work never ended with her government job. Back in 1994, she began a private school called Hira. Paid for by her own purse, she co-opted her husband, besides others, as teachers. Entirely free and offering quality education, the institution functioned for a decade when it was put paid to by the rising law and order situation. Among the graduates of this school, Gul has a number of doctors and engineers.

Today, she runs a skill training centre in her home. Under the umbrella of Women’s Welfare and Development Organisation, she teaches traditional sewing and embroidery to local women. Long before she had established this NGO and acquired funds to provide assistance to her clients, she had begun by training one woman who had come to her door asking for a handout.

Rather than give her the fish for a meal, Gul taught the woman fishing. She passed on the craft of sewing to her that she had learned from her mother. Then, from her own purse, she provided her protégé with a sewing machine. Today, this woman averages Rs800 per day as a seamstress. Now with the NGO running full steam and a training centre in village Gwalieri besides the one Gul has in her home in Seejbun, there are dozens of such women sprinkled across this part of Matta sub-division in Swat. Interestingly, this part of Swat follows the backward tradition of neighbouring Dir where the Nawab frowned upon education for his people. Gul points out that the rich Khans of the area never followed the way of the long-departed Wali of Swat who espoused education for all. To this day, they discourage schools, especially for girls because illiteracy provides a steady stream of illiterate, unquestioning domestic help.

Gul Khandana receiving guests at her school. She is on the left in the purple shawl
As her work grows, Gul’s skill training pupils are becoming very much their own women, much to the alarm of the Khans. But the wheel of change has been set in motion and is grinding inexorably along the path. With all this under her hat, Gul Khandana has just one more wish: to see her school rise from its primary level to become a high school — the nearest being in Matta, one hour away by local bus. She has petitioned political and district managers, but to little avail other than some hot air. But she is not giving up. One day, sooner than later, she will have it done, she says.

If this gutsy woman could stand up to savage terrorists and protect her school, there is little doubt that upgradation of the institution should be of any difficulty.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 20 May 2015 at 12:02, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

Such great peoples are the need of the time

At 20 May 2015 at 22:45, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Great heroin from Swat. Salute.


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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

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days