Fourteen schools, primarily girls’, have been burned down in Diamer. For the geographically unsure, Diamer is in Gilgit-Baltistan and sounds familiar because it is also the site of the proposed Diamer-Bhasha dam, for which most Pakistani citizens have received a polite text message about. School arson is not new to the neighbourhood; half a dozen schools were burned down in 2004 and a few more followed suit in 2011 and 2015. Small wonder then, that Diamer has the lowest female literacy rate in Gilgit-Baltistan and district-wise is also in the lowest ten in Pakistan for literacy. One can safely assume from these statistics that for girls, going to school is still one of the most dangerous things they can do.

One cannot presume their parents want this for them, that they wilfully prefer their children to not be educated. Most parents want better for their children, and an education is an unequivocal passport to a better life. But what is clear is that be it extremists, militants or social strictures, Diamer’s children are being constantly thwarted from schooling. In a country where the simple act of going to school is becoming one of courage, it is clear that with this spate of vandalism, we are failing our children.

Which fire do we put out first, one wonders. Save the animals? Water conservation? Education? Polio vaccinations? Does one donate one’s ten rupees to build a dam, or text money to cancer hospitals? The problem is not us—Pakistanis have always rallied to charitable causes, whether it’s the millions of rupees already in the CJ’s fund, Edhi or cancer hospitals. The problem is with the people in charge. There is no system, no framework within which procedures and projects can be undertaken in a logical and responsible way. Nobody is in charge of the clattering train; our government is just a mishmash of men giving press conferences and zooming around the country in entourages and sniping at each other on talk shows. Our strangely proactive CJP put his well-intentioned but ridiculous dam fund together and now says it’s not the judiciary’s job to build dams. You don’t say! It’s not the average taxpaying citizen’s job either, so taking money from government officials’ salaries or from well-meaning civilians is an exercise in futility and an abuse of hope.

Pakistan has needed more dams for decades. My generation grew up hearing about Kalabagh Dam—I’m in my thirties, and there’s still no dam. In the same vein, what is being done for Diamer’s schools? It is shocking that schools in the district have been under some kind of attack or another for fourteen years, and one knows nothing about any measures taken to curb this. The fact that His Lordship thinks it is a conspiracy against the dam only shows precisely how our governance operates: inside a limited sphere of interest, with similarly limited commitment. Of course it is not a conspiracy against the dam. There are no mysterious wheels within wheels operating to keep the dam outside Diamer. No masked men have sat around a shadowy baize table, plotting to keep modernisation out of the village. If any men have, it is because they think children, particularly girls, have no business learning to read and write, because that will cause them to think, and ask questions, and stand up for the injustices they have been enduring all these generations because they didn’t know any better. The wheels within wheels are the men who are terrified of a girl with a book, whose worst nightmare is a girl like Malala: a girl who spoke up and didn’t back down. For once, wouldn’t it be nice to actually focus on the problem at hand? Our government is fantastic at deflecting attention, subverting the narrative so one’s gaze is perpetually distracted from what really needs to be done. We need to urgently implement water conservation measures, on an emergency basis. Radio and television campaigns need to be undertaken—film stars and judicial stars need to be telling people to have balti baths and fix their leaky taps. Instead, we all text ten rupees to the Fund and feel like we’ve done our bit. Schools are being burned down by miscreants—thankfully during the holidays, but we’ve seen worse things happen to children in our schools. Instead of trying to pin it on “conspiracy”, can we call a spade a spade, and step up for Diamer? We want to build a dam in their backyard—it seems like the least one can do in return is to help their children—our children—have the basic right to a safe education.

 

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com