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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 10 Apr 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The Fearless Malalas of J&K


By Hamid Shah Hashmi

09 April 2014

There are many girls in Jammu & Kashmir who wish to change the world around them, by getting better-educated and spreading education across. Their dreams can come true if the State authorities help out these brave hearts.

Malala Yousafzai, the child advocate from across the border who gained respect worldwide for her activism in the field of girls’ education, was recently conferred with Pakistan’s Civil Awards. This 16-year-old human rights crusader, who now lives in Britain, was shot by a Taliban gunman in 2012 for her outspoken views on children’s education in her home region in north-west Pakistan. Yet this near-fatal attack did not deter her from speaking about the importance of education especially for girls — she is a firm believer that it takes merely one child, one teacher, one book and one pen to change the world.

Malala’s belief is shared by her peer, Shazia Kouser, a resident of this side of the Indian border. Hailing from the border village Banloi, 15km from Mendhar Tehsil of Poonch district in Jammu & Kashmir, Shazia has grown up with conflict. Coupled with isolation from rest of the country, this hostile environment has kept the inhabitants of this border village away from development. Struggling with basic facilities in addition to the fallouts of conflict has become a part of life for them. Worst affected is education — more specifically, the education of girls.

There were days when women were simply not allowed to pursue education. Militancy is considered to be the main reason for this trend. According to the 1981 Census Report, the female literacy rate for Poonch district was only 11.24 per cent as compared to the male literacy rate of 34.20 per cent. The comparison is worse in rural Poonch with a mere 8.47 per cent women being literate against 32.19 per cent of men.

Dogged efforts of the State made education the focus of development in spite of militancy being a constant fear in the backdrop, hindering progress at every step. It was then, in 1980, that the first school was established in Banloi. Today, over three decades later, there are only three Primary and one Middle School in this village catering to the needs of a population of approximately 3,500 people. Both boys and girls are encouraged to go to school.

Still, the absence of a higher secondary school in the village has resulted in a high drop-out rate after class eight, especially among girls.

The nearest higher secondary school is in village Mankote, eight to nine kilometres from Banloi, making it difficult for girls to travel and attend school. “Girls often drop out from school after completing class eight as there is no higher secondary school in our village. Boys are allowed to travel long distances to other villages and continue their studies but girls do not have permission from their parents”, rues 23-year-old Shazia.

Another factor that plays an important role in the high drop-out rate is the close proximity of the village to the border. Villagers have been issued identity cards by the security forces and are allowed only restricted movement during the day — that, after strict security checks each time they cross the gate. Parents do not like their girls subjected to such security checks — thereby denying them the right to continue their studies. The only thing left in a girl’s life, despite an avid interest in education, is to take care of the household and rear the livestock.

Poverty also plays a role in hindering the education of a girl child. According to Abdul Rehman, Naib Sarpanch, Banloi, in addition to fencing and road connectivity, poverty is also to be blamed. In the absence of any regular source of income, most parents cannot afford the transport fare.

“I wish to continue my studies even after class eight as my dream are to become a doctor and help the poor and disabled people living a miserable life in our village. I wish to provide them treatment free of cost but my dream looks like it will always remain a dream”, says a saddened Saima, currently studying in class eight.

There are many more Saimas in Banloi village who have compromised with their dreams and accepted the current situation as their fate. The Government has helped them till class eight; they can only hope that the State realises the fact that they aspire to a good education and need a higher secondary school to satiate their thirst for knowledge. These girls wish to change the world around them, just like Malala. Whether their dreams come true remains to be seen.