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An alternative to religious schools in Pakistan

Traditionally, in the poorest areas of politically unstable Pakistan, the only choice for an education was an Islamic one. But, NBC News Naveen Naqvi reports on a slow revolution in Pakistan's education system bringing hope  to  generation of students.
/ Source: NBC News

Kiran Shaheen lives in Uthal, a village on the outskirts of Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. 

The eight-year-old girl lives with her two brothers, sister and parents in a single-room house where there is electricity, but no running water or proper sanitation. As part of their daily chores, she and her sister help their mother cook meals that usually consist of bread and vegetables, draw water from the village well, and feed their two goats.

Shaheen’s mother makes clay stoves and anklets made of thread to sell to the village women. Her father is unemployed and uses his wife’s money to fuel his drug habit. He frequently lands in jail for petty thefts, and beats his wife and children regularly.

But her difficult home life has not stopped Kiran and her two siblings from marching off to school every morning.

Her light brown hair is neatly plaited with two bright green ribbons and her beige uniform with its white scarf trimly placed across her chest as she carries her tattered bag across the fields.

She attends a school in Uthal set up in April 2002 by an organization called The Citizens Foundation (TCF), established in 1995 by six affluent businessmen based in Karachi to address “the dismal state of education in Pakistan.” 

Alternative to Islamic schools
In addition to allievating the dire state of the educational system, the TCF schools, now numbering 180, are seen as an alternative to Pakistan's Islamic schools, known as madrassas.

Traditionally, in the poorest areas of politically unstable Pakistan, the only choice for an education was an Islamic one.

But they came under scrutiny after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States. Many of the Taliban leaders in neighboring Afghanistan were trained in the schools, which were viewed as a breeding ground for extremism.

Many of the institutions are believed to be sponsored by militant Islamic groups, who train boys and eventually recruit them to fight in the disputed Kashmir region or in Afghanistan. 

The TCF, for its part, says the main goal is simply to improve basic education.

“Our struggle is against illiteracy," said TCF chairman Ahsan Saleem. "The root of most of Pakistan’s problems — be it religious intolerance or poverty — is lack of education.

"We are in a type of war that is not for us to win and the other side to lose. It’s not mine. It’s not yours. It’s ours,” he said. 

Hope for one girl
The men in Uthal were initially resistant to the new school, particularly because of its all female staff, but the local women were steadfast in their resolve to educate their children in this unique school.

There are 115 students, nearly evenly divided between boys and girls.  Each class has a maximum of 30 students to ensure personalized attention.

At Kiran Shaheen’s school, 84 of the 115 students are on scholarship, which means that they pay as little as 16 cents a month, instead of the standard $3 tuition fee.

The typical school fees can prove insurmountable in Pakistan, a country where, according to the World Bank, the average per-capita income is $470. The smaller fee for scholarship students at the TCF schools provide students with not only an education and textbooks, but also uniforms.

The purpose-built primary school building is white on the exterior with a myriad of colorful trimmings. There are two small gardens which the students help maintain: one in the front and the other in the back where the children play during recess and their daily sports hour. 

There are two sparkling white-tiled bathrooms, one for boys and the other for girls. The classrooms and corridors are spotlessly clean with posters adorning the walls, made by teachers and students, depicting a range of subjects from the alphabet, fruits, vegetables, and numbers, to the virtues of gender equality and the harms of domestic violence.

Unlike other schools, the foundation’s curriculum places a great deal of importance on the arts — to the extent that one of the students won an international art competition that sent his work to the Tate Modern in London. 

The brightly lit art room also functions as a library. It has a computer on one side, which students are being taught to use, a book shelf with tidily stacked Oxford University Press books, and student artwork.

Sharp contrast to the alternative
The environment and curriculum of TCF schools are in sharp contrast to other schools available to impoverished children in this country with a population of over 150 million, where 41 percent of adult men and 70 percent of adult women are illiterate. 

The madrassas are the only other welfare education system existing in Pakistan, but in return they indoctrinate principles that make it difficult, if not impossible, to adjust in society or compete in the job market. 

“People send their children to madrassas for lack of viable alternatives,” said Sheheryar Fazli, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, a multinational think tank that studies conflict prevention and resolution. “TCF is definitely a viable alternative.”

Over the years it has become evident that in the neediest neighborhoods, parents are opting when possible to send their children to TCF schools rather than the local madrassas. 

The medium of instruction at the foundations schools is both English and Urdu, which immediately gives graduates an edge over students who emerge from not only madrassas but also state-run schools.

The teachers are all women who go through eight weeks of pre-service training before they can begin work and four weeks of practical training once they commence.        

Sadaf Hina, the head teacher of Kiran’s school with undergraduate degrees in Arts and Education, travels 90 minutes from Rawalpindi to work. And she admits it's hard work.

“It takes about two weeks to train the students about basic hygiene such as how to wash their hands and use the toilet," she said. "But that is part of the reason why it is more rewarding to work here than any other school. We can help these deserving children.”