To Be Literate

By Sema Hasan ’18

To what extent do cultural traditions and history affect the access young women have to literacy in Pakistan?

Professor Carl F. Kaestle of Brown University once wrote that “without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials.” With this statement, Kaestle emphasizes how vital reading and writing are for, as he states, a tool for one to engage in critical thinking and questioning, and offers a way for individuals to “achieve [their] full potentials.” Reading and writing have always been a way to communicate, but for centuries women have struggled for the right to obtain this basic skill. While there is a large proportion of the world that is illiterate, the lowest rates of female literacy and the highest gender gap in literacy are found in Muslim-majority countries including Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. Yet, rather than blame illiteracy entirely on a patriarchy, religion, or poverty, the explanation for why women continue to be denied access to literacy is rooted in a society’s culture as a whole. Despite pressure from the international community and what most Islamic scholars contend, the culture of Pakistan, specifically its government, language, customs and traditions, continue to limit the access women have to literacy.

Literacy is often defined as being able to read, write and comprehend; to understand what is written. Unfortunately, many are unable to do so due to the restrictions put in place by various societies. According to Kaestle, literacy can further be defined as “the ability to decode and comprehend written language at a rudimentary level [and is] the ability to look at written words corresponding to ordinary oral discourse, to say them and understand them.” Furthermore, writing allows “the replication, transportation, and preservation of messages” (Kaestle). Being most often obtained through education, literacy is a vital component of everyday life, for it allows for the understanding of one’s world “and to securing one’s place in it” (Stromquist). According to Daniel Wagner, a member of the Peace Corps who conducted research on illiteracy in the Arab world, literacy is “not an object’ that can be mandated by the government authorities, but rather, its acquisition and maintenance are dependent on the cultural beliefs, practices and history within which it resides” (Magin). The beliefs and practices within the country of Pakistan are examples of how this is prevalent.

In its simplest definition, culture refers to the beliefs, customs, and art of a particular society, group, place or time. If examined closely however, one will see that culture consists of seven components: government, language, social structure, religion, economy, art and literature, and customs and traditions. Societies establish government in order to regulate and bring order to a community, as well as to see that certain values are upheld. Some governments achieve this better than others. Language is a critical component because it offers individuals a way to communicate, and there is arguably no culture without language. Economy refers to the distribution or allocation of funding and resources. Similarly, customs and traditions are ways of “thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by people in a particular group [or] society” for a long period of time (Webster). Reading and writing are considered a necessity rather than a privilege in many parts of the world, but in countries such as Pakistan, where less than half of the population is illiterate, illiteracy is the cultural norm.

In the Arab world, literacy is traced back centuries and has traditionally been considered sacred in its purposes (Migan). During the expansion of Islamic civilization, centers for higher learning, known as madrasas, were created. These madrasas provided instruction in “Islamic law, Arabic language and literature, and, to a lesser extent, in secular subjects such as philosophy, mathematics, and science” (Migan). One of the first madrasas was built in Baghdad in the eleventh century C.E., and in addition to a free education, madrasas offered food and free lodging, resulting in their rapid spread throughout the Muslim world. Teachers taught using a  lecture format and students learned lessons from habitual memorization. In most Muslim-majority countries today, madrasas exist “as part of a broader educational infrastructure” where students receive what is considered to be a “quality Western-style education” (Armanois). While literacy came to symbolize power and was “restricted to a small elite” (Olson), meaning a primarily male elite, throughout the history of the Arab world, Muslim women continued to play an important and historic role as scholars and leaders in education. One such woman was Fatima Jinnah, sister of Pakistan’s founding father.

Although she looked frail, Fatima was the “graceful but gritty sister” of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and was later known as “a patriotic heroine” after the creation of Pakistan (Paracha). Unlike most women, Fatima had the opportunity to be educated at the University of Calcutta, and received a degree in dentistry. During her lifetime, Fatima was a social worker, a women’s rights activist, and a trusted confidant to her brother, later writing a book about his life and accomplishments. Similarly, the princess, Fatima Al-Fihri, established the first degree-granting university in the world, the University of Al Karaouine, in Morocco in 859 C.E. Despite these examples of educated female leaders, in today’s society, there remains to be a large gap between the literacy rates of males and females.

Currently, there is a large percentage of the world’s population, regardless of geographic location, that lacks the ability to read and write. The total youth literacy rate globally is an estimated 89.5%, meaning that about 123.2 million people in the world between the ages of 15 and 20 are literate. Of those 123.2 million people, the total literacy rate of female youth is 61.35% (Olson). While the literacy rate for Muslim-majority countries is particularly low, between 1990 and 2011 the adult literacy rate in the Arab world rose from 55% to 77% and youth literacy rate rose from 74% to 90% (Olson). While these numbers may seem satisfactory, an examination of each region reveals that the literacy rate is much lower. For example, the literacy rate in Pakistan for females aged 15 to 24 years is approximately 61.5%; for males it is 79.1% (Unicef). Furthermore, of the 5.1 million children who are out of school in Pakistan, 3 million of them are girls, and of the 49 million illiterate adults in Pakistan, two-thirds are women (Shaukat).

In comparison, the total population of people over the age of 15 who can read and write in Afghanistan is 28.1%, and the total literacy rate for females is 12.6%, compared to males at 43.1% (CIA World Factbook). In contrast, the total adult literacy rate in Iran is 85%, with the literacy rate for both female and female youth being 98.5% (Unicef). According to Professor Nelly P. Stromquist, this global gender gap in literacy is rooted in terms of the sexual division of labor that assigns women domestic tasks, and men’s control of women sexually. Stromquist states that female illiteracy can be explained in the context of women’s “overall inferior status in society.” In terms of the division of labor, for example, women account for two-thirds of the working hours in the world. In places like Pakistan, women are disappointed at their position in a segregated society and do what they can to break away from the set expectations by receiving an education and becoming literate (Stromquist).

However, in order to fully understand why Pakistan has such a low literacy rate, one must examine the history of Pakistan and events that transpired prior to its creation. Pakistan was originally a part of British India, which was eventually segregated along religious lines in 1947. Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was a scholar and lawyer, who was educated at Bombay University in London, as well as a human rights activist, minority activist, and a women’s rights activist. Jinnah said: “No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women” (Yousafzai 31). During the 1930s and 40s, as relations between Muslims and Hindus deteriorated, a session was held for the Muslim League during which the first official demand was made for the partition of India and the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan. While Jinnah had always believed that peace and unity between Muslims and Hindus was possible, he eventually came to view that partition was necessary, and thus the Muslim state of Pakistan was created.

In places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and sections of India, Islam is the primary religion. Islam is practiced by a majority of Pakistanis and governs their “personal, political, economic and legal lives” (“Society and Norms: Gender Roles—Women”). There are five core practices, or pillars of Islam which include: one’s profession of faith, praying five times a day, almsgiving, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and participating in the Hajj, a holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Traditionally, within all Pakistani families there is a patriarchal and hierarchical system which provides each member a distinct role. Within the patriarchal system, the senior male is expected to make the best decisions for the good of the family. For women, maintaining a good reputation is a lifelong demand.Within the family, however, women have more power and influence when it comes to decision making. In one’s family, a man’s wife is the dominant female who can wield “a significant amount of power over daily household activities and younger household members” (“Society and Norms: Gender Roles—Women”). Despite this, outside of the home, women generally have a lack of power and girls are expected to become wives and mothers rather than attend school.

While many girls are unable to go to school, some measures have been taken by the government to increase the quality of education and provide more opportunity for girls to attend school.  In 1959 for example, the Pakistani government created a commission on national education in an attempt to provide “equal facilities, in terms of quantity and quality, for the education of boys and girls” and to “preferably employ women as teachers for the primary level” (Quershi 4). While this commission supported equal facilities, it also recommended specific areas of study for young women, including “elementary home craft, child rearing, nursing, [and] home economics” (Quershi 4). An education policy established in 1970 was created to “establish separate girls’ schools wherever possible to overcome parents’ resistance to girls’ education,” and another policy formulated in 1979 reiterated the goal of providing equal access to basic education to all citizens.

Despite its support for equal opportunity, author Rashida Quershi states that the 1979 policy presents some contradictory statements. For example, the 1979 policy, like previous policies, recommends support for “acquisition of literacy and certain basic home management skills [which] may be preferred over full scale primary education [for girls] for the time being by typical rural families” (Quershi ). In addition, the document presents a dilemma in deciding between making an investment in higher education or primary (basic) education. It argues that an investment in higher education “benefit[s] only a small percentage of [the] female population mostly coming from affluent families” while investing in primary education would help a larger amount of people (Quershi ). Although opportunities for young women to access education in Pakistan exist, they are ineffective and unsustainable.

Today, despite the several educational policies that have been created over the past decades, there are several reasons why girls and young women do not attend school. The Pakistan Integrated Household Survey (PIHS) conducted in 2002 shows that lack of parental permission is the most common reason given by girls for never attending school, both in urban and rural areas. Parents have the authority to decide whether or not to send their daughters to school at all or to withdraw them at puberty, which is the common outcome. The PIHS also reports that distance between home and school is another frequently listed reason for not attending school. Most parents’ decisions regarding the choice not to send their daughters to school is often based on their perception of potential threats to their daughter’s safety on her way to school. This is a particularly common response from families who live in rural areas and in provinces with “scattered populations.” Studies show that when schools are located closer to home, parents are more likely to send their daughters to school. While this is a step in the right direction, access and efficacy of education continue to be the largest issue.

Parents’ perception of the quality of education available to their children is a major factor that affects their decision to send their children to school. Some of the “minimal quality indicators” that parents look for to determine the quality of a school are: the condition of the building and whether or not there is presence of a boundary wall around the school and if there are toilets and drinking water; if there are “able female teachers who remain present in class,” and if visible improvement in children’s behavior can be seen, and if there is evidence of learning (Quershi 20). If a school has some or all of these qualities, parents are more willing to send their daughters to school even if their financial resources are limited. Despite having all of the “minimal quality indicators,” many schools are taught in different languages, which creates a language barrier, making it difficult to learn.

In addition to the coeducation schools, there are several different types of schools throughout Pakistan. These include elite English speaking schools, non elite English speaking schools, government Urdu speaking schools, and madrasas. During the British colonial period, a language education policy was created which stated that Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, would be the language for the instruction of the masses while English would be the medium “for the elite” (Coleman). While this policy faced criticism as early as 1880, populations of people continued to be taught in other languages, and were thus “divorced from their sociolinguistic roots” (Coleman). Because people were separated from their native languages, they lost contact with the literature of their culture.  As of 2014, this linguistic barrier still exists. In a multilingual country such as Pakistan, where several languages compete for supremacy, English is considered to be the “elite” language and many children attend English-speaking schools (Mustafa). British academic Hywel Coleman states that children learning in Urdu as a second language face major obstacles, especially at a young age. These issues can range from making slower progress in reading and writing to a lack of support from parents who also struggle with Urdu. Today, there exists an overwhelming amount of evidence illustrating that children benefit from receiving their early education through the “medium of their home language” (Coleman). One such piece of evidence is that children learn to read and write significantly easier in their home language, a language with which they are already familiar. Furthermore, if a child becomes literate in their home language first they are more likely to be successful in learning a second language.

In addition to having schools that instruct in different languages, studies suggest that many schools, specifically girls-only schools have fewer resources with which to work. Most girls-only schools have poor facilities, lack science laboratories and experience high levels of teacher absenteeism in secondary schools. According to the Pakistan Task Force report released in 2013, on any given day, 15 to 20 percent of public sector teachers were found absent, leaving children for one day a week without teaching (Inayatullah). It is estimated that out of the 365 days per year in Pakistan, public teaching only takes place on 120 days or so (Inayatullah). Similarly, the school day in Afghanistan is barely three hours long and the quality of textbooks are “notoriously bad” (Oates). Often there are schools where teachers decide not to show up, yet they continue to get paid by the government. There are over 7,000 schools, known as ghost schools that exist throughout Pakistan. According to a report conducted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, most of the ghost schools are “teaching institutions only by name, but virtually no student is being admitted there to seek education” (Redhar). While some teachers remain absent and continue to collect salaries, other schools fail to appoint new teachers. Furthermore, unlike Afghanistan, who is beginning to spend more money on education, according to the Education for Global Monitoring Report of 2012, Pakistan spends seven times more money on its military than on primary education and has the second highest number of “out of school children” in the world (Shaukat).

In addition to the lack of funding and poor quality of education, poverty continues to be a primary reason as to why there so many children out of school. According to the PIHS of 2001-2002, poverty was the most frequently cited reason for boys and the second most frequent for girls not attending school. The data shows that the rate of enrollment for boys coming from higher income groups is twice as much than boys who come from the lower income groups. Quershi states that the difference is even larger for girls. According to the PIHS, girls in the lowest income group have three times less access to school than girls in the highest income group. Furthermore, in Pakistan, there is an estimated 37.5% of the population who live in poverty, or 64 million people, and for a family in poverty, where parents have little money, education does not serve as a high priority (Dhakan). Because of this, most girls are often forced to study at home rather than go to school.

While some may argue that the poverty exists throughout the world and many other countries are denied necessary resources, in order to understand why certain countries continue to experience poor literacy rates, one must examine how funding and resources are distributed by different governments. Critics may contend that a lack of resources is not to blame for low literacy rates, for evidence suggests that several countries including Japan, Somalia and Vietnam overcame identical obstacles during their initial years. However, according to an article published in the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, regarding literacy in Pakistan, the only difference between Pakistan and other countries is that the Pakistani government “only laid emphasis on giving policy documents rather than implement them” (Khan). Other issues that contribute to Pakistan’s low literacy rate include failure to properly monitor checks and balances, particularly in public sector education.

Furthermore, some may claim that religion is solely to blame for the limited access that women have to school and literacy, yet there are some Muslim-majority countries that have higher literacy rates than others. Despite popular belief in Western Civilization, Islam is a religion that advocates for women’s rights, including their right to receive an education. Due to certain interpretations of Islam, the role of women varies from region to region, with some areas being more strict than others. Yet, one must be cautious when examining the issues that women face in the Muslim world, for although Islam is a factor in the position of women in Muslim societies, it is not the only factor. Author Mitra K. Shavarini states the issues of girls and women in Muslim societies are “often misunderstood in a western context” and that other factors such as “poverty, corruption, geopolitical and regional power struggles, and cultural values also impact that status of women in the Muslim world.” While Islam is the primary religion of Pakistan and has incredible influence over its citizens, it is not the primary reason for Pakistan’s low literacy rate and low access to education.

While Pakistan has a low quality of education, there are certain areas inside the country where the quality of the educational system and literacy rate are higher. In the Hunza Valley, a remote region in northernmost Pakistan, at least 75% of all residents are literate and “virtually all youths, regardless of gender can read and write” (Ghosh). Almost every child in the Hunza Valley attends school up to at least high school, and many others pursue higher education at colleges in Pakistan and abroad. One of the principal factors behind Hunza’s high literacy rates traces back to the education advocacy efforts of the Aga Khan II, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, who persuaded the rules of Hunza to educate their people. Today, what makes the literacy rate so high is that parents in Hunza recognize the value of receiving an education and encourage their daughters to gain an education. In the 21st century, Hunza is often described as “an oasis of education” and provides a good example for other regions to follow, and not just in terms of education. Unlike other regions, Hunza’s culture is not as traditional or restricting, and overall  is a much safer region. In Hunza, “women and girls stroll the bazaars after dusk without male relatives and no one dares to bat even an eyelash at them, let alone stare sleazily and make risque comments” (Ghosh). Organizations also exist to help promote the importance of education, such as the Hoshyar Project.

The Hoshyar project is one such organization. Based in the United States, the Hoshyar project is designed to “increase girl’s access to education in Pakistan and other underserved parts of South Asia.” The organization focuses on providing education to girls specifically in Pakistan because of the alarming rate at which girls usually drop out of primary school, typically because after that age, “girls and boys are prohibited to study together” and there are very few girl-only schools. In addition, the Hoshyar Project believes that secondary schooling provides more opportunity for futures “beyond early marriage and lifelong domesticity.” Executive director Carla Petievich believes that illiteracy and early marriage are connected, but only “if there is a cause and effect.” Petievich states that girls are not deliberately kept illiterate so that they can marry early, yet if they are not in school there are fewer reasons not to “marry them off.” Today, Pakistani parents are much more willing to wait for their daughter to complete her education before arranging a marriage in Hunza.

Petievich, contends that the steps that need to be taken in an effort to increase literacy rates are to “make education more widely available” and she believes that the best way to do so is to “open more schools and make it easier for people to attend school.” The Hoshyar project attempts to make education available to as many girls as possible by providing money for tuition, salaries of teachers, books, uniforms and other schools costs. Similarly, according to UNESCO’s director in Pakistan, Dr.Kozue Kay Nagata, Pakistan needs to develop “a strong legal framework to ensure the provision of education” under Article 25-A of the Constitution, which mandates “free and compulsory education for all [children] aged 5-16” (Shaukat). If these steps are taken, using Hunza Valley as an example, girls in Pakistan would have the tools available to them to become literate.

While one would think that the right to education and the ability to read and write is one that every young girl should have, this is not the case. Stromquist states most literacy programs do not encourage the promotion of female literacy because their curricula are “still designed along sexually stereotyped lines that emphasize women’s role as mothers and household managers.” Historically, access to education has been used by the dominant group in society to maintain power over a lesser group. Thus, by denying women access to education, men can continue to maintain a superior position over them. Yet, studies show that women who are educated and literate are able to make better decisions about their safety and welfare. Educated girls marry later, which results in lower fertility rates, healthier families, and women are able to educate their own children. Women who are literate are more likely to “register their births of her children” and to have children who are attending school, “who are vaccinated, who are well nourished, and who survive infancy and then childhood” (Oates).  Access to literacy and education not only affects the woman, but entire families and communities.

In rural areas in Pakistan and India, literacy means more than being able to read, it has a bigger impact. In these rural areas, family members are dependent on others who can read and write. Both rural and urban families rely on “lettered members to to negociate with the outside world” such as “dealing with the telephone and electric companies, medical treatment centres like hospitals or clinics, [and] reading signs on buses and trains when they travel” (Petievich). When the ability to read and write is denied, incidents and in the extreme cases, death, often occur as a result. Pakistani newspapers often report incidents of children dying because their parents are unable to read the instructions on their prescribed medicine bottles, or women dying in childbirth because they are unaware that they need to go to a hospital.

Those who cannot read rely on literate members of their community to help them, which are far and few between. Rural communities are generally made up of laborers and people who are non-skilled workers. In addition, people who want to have a number of children generally want them to work rather than go to school. Yet, for the few people who are literate, being able to understand the written word offers them a sense of “dignity and self respect [and] empowers them in many ways” (“Pakistan: Low Literacy Rates Hamper Health, Welfare”). Literacy means much  more than just being able to read and write, it makes a profound difference for people who cannot communicate with the outside world.

Despite the traditional gender roles that have been established in Pakistan, young women have challenged social norms, and serve as role models. Current examples of Pakistani girls whose right to attend school was threatened, yet managed to overcome adversity and obstacles include Malala Yousafzai and Mukhtar Mai. Born in 1997 in the town of Mingora to a Sunni Muslim family, Malala first caught the attention of the public when she wrote a BBC diary about her life under the Taliban in 2009. Yousafzai would hand write notes about her life and what had transpired during the day, and then passed them on to a reporter. Three years later in October in 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman because of her campaign for girls’ education. Her survival marked her rise to fame and global recognition. As she describes in her autobiography I Am Malala, Malala was a girl in a land where “rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain, their role in life simply to prepare food and give birth to children” (Yousafzai 13). She and her father both argue that poor “education [is] the root of all Pakistan’s problems” (Yousafzai 41). Malala received a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her work and activism promoting girls’ rights to education, and continues to be a significant role model for young girls globally. In her home town of Swat, for example, one in every three girls go to school because of  the Yousafzai campaign.

Similarly, Mukhtar Mai became well known after the horrific incident in which she was gang raped by the order of a local council, and is now a prominent advocate of female education. After being raped, most women would commit suicide to “cleanse herself and her family of the shame” (Kristof), yet her mother and father prevented her from doing so. Instead, she reported the crime and when President Pervez Musharraf heard about the case, sent her $83,000 in compensation. Instead of taking the money for herself, Mukhtar decided to “invest it in what her village needed most—schools” (Kristof).  She is often regarded as one of Pakistan’s bravest women because she dared to speak out against her attackers and go against the societal norms. Because of the strength and courage of these two women, other girls have been inspired to do the same. One such girl was Humaira Bachal, who went to school in secret, with the help of her mother and unbeknownst to her father. Bahcal hid her uniform and her books at a friends house and continued to go to school until discovered by her father. After much dispute, her father unhappily relented and allowed his daughter to go to school.

While many consider the issue of illiteracy to only affect poor, underdeveloped countries, illiteracy and lack of education is a global issue. In America, for example, even though the total percentage of people who are literate is approximately 99%, one must consider the larger population and access that many children have to education. Despite this, there remains a large number of people who are illiterate. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults can’t read and 21% of the population read below a 5th grade level (“The U.S. Literacy Rate Hasn’t Changed in Ten Years”).  Many people take literacy for granted and for those who are unable to, it makes a difference. Most people do not seem to realize that the ability to read and allow is a major tool that allows an individual to communicate and express their opinions or concerns.


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