Long Read: in the squatter colonies of Pakistan, education is something that happens to other people especially if you are female. Rahul Bhattacharya meets Humaira Bachal who, as a girl, taught a whole community a lesson
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2013
In the settlement of Moach Goth on the outskirts of Karachi lives a heroine. To meet her you must drive out towards the provincial border of Sindh and Balochistan. En route to Moach Goth, you are shown the flyover that collapsed, the factory that burned, and an entrance to Lyari, the ghetto whose gang wars and body-counts are in the papers every day.
It was a momentous time to be in Pakistan, ten days after general elections and the first transition in the nation’s history from one elected government to another. The talk was of tabdeeli, change, and dhandhli, rigging. The talk was of whether things were getting better, or whether they were going to get worse before they got better. The day before repolling in a constituency in southern Karachi, Zahra Shahid Hussain, a much-admired professor, activist and vice-president of the political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, had been shot dead at the gates of her house by two men on a motorcycle. The next morning Samina Baig, a 22-year-old, became the first Pakistani woman to scale Everest.
To enter Moach Goth is to begin to understand another climb, that made by Humaira Bachal. When she and her family came here, they had just cleared their debts. It was probably some time in 1995, but they are not sure. The settlement was small, nothing like now. A fishing village had been here for a long time, but now it was transforming into a squatter’s colony in the fast-expanding conurbation of Karachi. When they arrived, as they remember it, there were about a hundred mud and straw huts. There were jungles of thorny acacia. The gangs had not yet formed, and in any case no vehicles really came to the village, so you didn’t need to flash your headlights in code to enter anybody’s turf after dark.
Now, between the Sindhis, Balochis, Kutchhis, Brohis, Mohajirs, Punjabis and Bengalis, there are 160,000, perhaps 180,000, people in Moach Goth. The sand blows through its unpaved streets. The cement water tower that stands tall over the population worked for two months, then ran dry, so now they must buy water from private contractors. Electricity lines have been installed, but there are power cuts for nine hours a day. Sewage pipes were laid twice; each time they burst in the rains.
Two of the three government schools in Moach Goth are ghost schools, abandoned by their teachers and administrators and occupied instead by junkies or criminals; there are an estimated 30,000 such schools in Pakistan. The single working school left in Moach Goth barely functions. Boys are usually pulled out at 12 by their families and put to work in factories or on construction sites; girls are rarely permitted to study at all. Government figures state that 40% of Pakistani girls have had a primary education, but other official sources put female literacy in Pakistan at 26%. According to independent sources, if you exclude those who can form only their signature, the figure tumbles to 12%.
So when Humaira Bachal matriculated—the equivalent of taking her GCSEs—it was about the most improbable thing a girl from Moach Goth could do. And then she built perhaps the most improbable school in the world. She is 26 now, and she started it when she was 13.
Above Humaira Bachal, founder of the Dream Model Street School, stands in one of the many abandoned, or "ghost", schools of Karachi
Humaira was born on a Friday morning, "black and thin," she says, "like a little rat". Her grandfather looked at her and cried: "Allah, will this girl live to ever give me a glass of water?" She was the firstborn of Mohammad Bachal and Zainab Bibi, though each had four children from a previous marriage.
They had fallen in love in Lyari, not then such a lethal place. (Decades later, the body of Bachal’s only son would be discovered there in a sack under a bridge.) Zainab, a Baloch, was married at 11 to a drunk, drug addict and wife-beater. Bachal, a Sindhi, married a woman who loved someone else. She arranged for Bachal to wed Zainab. But he was cussed: for her troubles, she still did not get her divorce. "Your father is a most wicked man," Zainab would complain to Humaira and her younger sister Tahira, making them laugh.
After the marriage, Zainab and Bachal moved to the town of Thatta in Sindh, where they bought a piece of land and built a hut. He was a truck driver; she took stitching jobs. Humaira was born in Thatta, and three years later was admitted to a nursery school. It was the first time a girl in the family had started a formal education. Bachal tolerated it—Zainab had insisted, supported by her youngest son, Shakeel, who had found some progressive friends in Thatta. The elder daughters were not around, so it was Shakeel who would dress Humaira and Tahira and comb their hair, babysit them at the cycle store where he worked, and take them to their classes.
Humaira remembers summer visits to her father’s village, where she would play with a one-year-old cousin, a boy called Munna. One day Munna had a fever, and Humaira was told to come back later. In the evening she found women assembled around the house, crying: Munna had died. It happened 15 minutes after he was given his medicine. She remembers people making absurd conjectures, like whether a lizard had spat in the bottle, before someone discovered that the medicine was past its expiry date. "I couldn’t accept that a mother had killed her child, a child she loved so much. She had killed him because she couldn’t read."
Her most vivid memory of Thatta is leaving it, soon after the wedding of Shakeel’s older brother. The Bachals had put all their capital and more into the wedding, counting on recouping the cost through wedding gifts. But then the rains came. Interior Sindh was flooded. The animals their guests might have given them were washed away, crops were submerged. The roads were gone; hardly anybody showed up. The wedding went ahead, but left the family in debt.
"We sold the iron," Humaira says. "We’d saved up for a television, we sold that. One by one, we sold our utensils. I remember creditors coming round. I remember my mother taking the earrings from my ears and selling them, and I remember why she sold them: because we had the money of others." When the house they had built with their hands stood empty, Zainab Bibi said, "We cannot live here any more." They sold the house and land for 40,000 rupees (£261) and made for the big city, where lives sometimes change.
They reached Karachi in a truck, their belongings few, their money gone, not sure where to go. At first they lived with an uncle, though it was clear they were not welcome. At the time Moach Goth was being settled by people escaping ethnic violence in Orangi Town, Karachi. An acquaintance of the Bachals had acquired a small plot there for 1,000 rupees (£6.50), but did not need it. He offered it to them. "You’ll have a place to live, and I’ll know that nobody will squat on my property."
Mohammad Bachal didn’t have a job, nor did Zainab’s sons; Zainab knew nobody she could stitch for. Food was scarce. Humaira and Tahira were "distributed among relatives". Humaira was about eight. "It was tyranny, like they show in the films. I was made to wash clothes, utensils, clean the house, cook, but given only scraps of the leftovers. I carried their bull of a child all over the place until my back felt it was going to break. I couldn’t stop crying. When my mother came to see me three months later, I forced her to take me back."
Because there was no sewage system in Moach Goth, there was work available digging latrine pits. This gave Bachal daily wages. Zainab, a generous woman, was known to give away fistfuls of firewood to whoever came asking. "I told my mother, 'why don’t we sell the wood?’" says Humaira. "I was very business-minded from the start." They hounded a scrap dealer till he sold them a pair of old scales. On Sundays the family would go into the acacia scrub. Bachal chopped, Zainab removed the thorns, Humaira and Tahira bundled the wood and loaded it on a truck. On a good day they could gather 100 kilos. At home, Zainab would cut the wood into little pieces, and sell them for two rupees (1p) a kilo.
With the money she paid for the two girls to go to Islamia Public School, a few kilometres out on the main road. It cost 250 rupees (£1.63) a month for each girl. At first Humaira and Tahira saw school as a punishment. Instruction was in Urdu, and they knew only Sindhi. They would be beaten in class for their incompetence, then shouted at at home by Zainab for complaining. But they both grew to love it. Mathematics was Humaira's special passion. She was sometimes ahead of the teacher, which gave her a feeling of exhilaration. The sisters used to set themselves the challenge of getting into the top three in class. They usually managed it.
Above Children of both sexes in class at the Dream School's first stand-alone premises, built on land Humaira rented when she was 16
Humaira was 13 when a crazy idea struck her. "My mother used to get us ready every day, tie two ponytails for us, put 2-kilo schoolbags on our backs and send us off. We would walk for 20 minutes—but on the way not one other child in this settlement would join us. One, they did not have money, and two, nobody considered girls to be anything. Those who didn’t mind sending girls to school couldn’t afford to, because of fees, and the cost of books and uniforms. By then I was in sixth standard [the equivalent of year eight in Britain]. I thought, I’m a big star, I know everything, so I will teach them myself!”
What would become the Dream Model Street School began in 2001, with one blackboard, at home. Humaira taught ten friends of her age, seven of them girls. She started with the alphabet, in Urdu and English, and proceeded to the names of things. She supplied blank pages from her own notebooks, until it got her into trouble with her teachers. Then the friends went round asking people to donate paper, or bought scrap.
Soon, Tahira, who was 11, and three other girls were teaching alongside Humaira. "We were militant about time. Time for study, time for play, time to eat—and time to go out and recruit. We didn’t have the sense to realise we didn’t have space, books, teachers, money. We went around to houses, telling people, 'We’ve opened a school, send your children, you must send your children!'"
A short film released on YouTube this year, "Humaira, Dreamcatcher", demonstrates the challenges of this recruitment. It’s the work of an Oscar-winning Pakistani-Canadian documentary-maker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, whose crew have been following the lives of Pakistani women fighting for change. Twelve years after the school started, the film shows local men still making their points: for girls to study is not our culture; they will be stared at while going to school; what use is educating a girl when she is only going to marry and run a house? Permissions, given reluctantly, are withdrawn easily.
Yet by 2003 Humaira’s team had enrolled over 150 children. The students could no longer fit into the Bachals' home, so the young teachers decided to rent. They took a 240-square-foot plot with two sorry rooms surrounded by mounds of mud. They levelled the ground themselves, erected wooden poles and strung up discarded flour sacks for shade. These collapsed in the rain. Someone suggested they use Panaflex signboards in place of the sacks. But the wooden poles would not take the weight. Somebody else suggested they use iron pipes, so they found a welder who helped rig them up. Finally, the shelter stood.
They had just about plastered part of the floor with money from a small donation when a charity called arm Child and Youth Welfare came visiting. One of its initiatives was a home-literacy programme, which meant that it could provide textbooks. It could also spare 1,000 rupees (£6.50) a month. "To us," Humaira says, "it felt like a hundred times more. It meant we could pay the rent."
By now, her own education had became a fraught affair. In those days Islamia Public School taught up to the eighth standard, two years short of the matriculation exam. Humaira did not have her father’s permission to study further, or farther away. Conspiring with her mother, she enrolled at the Government Girls High School in Baldia Town. The secret could be kept from her father, who was away in the interior for weeks driving trucks. Humaira shone at the new school, becoming class prefect and head of the students’ union. She wanted to be a doctor and spent her free time in the lab, dissecting frogs that she carried in from home. To her joy, she cracked the stationery problem at her own school when she discovered piles of half-used notebooks: the dinner lady had been tearing out the pages to wrap samosas.
One morning Mohammad Bachal returned home as Humaira was leaving to take her ninth-standard English exam. Enraged, he slapped her, then beat her mother, who urged Humaira to grab her bag and run. She sat the exam in a state of anxiety. When she returned, the house was calm. Her parents were having tea. He had not changed his mind.
Humaira says she told him, "Abbu [Daddy], if you are worried that you won’t be able to marry me off, I promise you that no matter who you produce, even if he is blind or a cripple, tell me where to sign and when to say kabool [I accept], before the magistrate, and I’ll do it, no questions asked. Just let me study." She knew it was a risk, but she was counting on her father’s love and her mother’s wisdom. "When a person is being stubborn," her mother would say, "it’s because he hasn’t understood yet. Once he understands, the severity with which he opposes you now, he will stand behind you with as much strength."
When he got a job in Karachi, Mohammad Bachal began dropping off his daughters at school in his truck, which delighted them. But his conversion was not complete. Shakeel remembers Bachal’s recurring bouts of rage, the way he once brandished an axe during an argument. And the other men of Moach Goth would not let it be. They asked the family to leave the settlement: Humaira and Tahira were a bad influence. They sent thugs to intimidate them. "But over the years," the sisters tell me, almost with one voice, "everyone realised that we are more stubborn than them."
Humaira dropped her plan to study medicine when she found out the fees were around 350,000 rupees (£2,280) a year. Instead she enrolled in a madrassa, with the intention of becoming an Islamic scholar, taking a degree equivalent to a Bachelor of Arts.
She remembers putting on what’s known as the "shuttlecock" burqa, head to toe, with stockings and gloves, and attending the madrassa, where the master taught from behind a purdah (screen). She became an occasional speaker at religious congregations. She instructed 350 girls in Moach Goth in namaaz, prayer, and wuzu, religious ablutions. Six months short of getting her degree, she quit.
Humaira does not name names, and keeps the details vague: there were arguments with the teachers at the madrassa, there was an attempt to kidnap her, her family feared for her safety. It’s clear that the disagreements were fundamental.
"Their concept of women was four walls and purdah. To them women are naqis-ul-akl—of defective intelligence. My perspective on Islam was very different from theirs. In the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, women were traders. Hazrat Khadija [the Prophet’s first wife] was a businesswoman. Bibi Aisha [the Prophet’s youngest wife] was a teacher of hadith, traditions of the Prophet, and fiqh, jurisprudence. In the time of the Prophet, peace be upon him, women had been sipahisalar, military commanders; they lived in camps. So is that the correct Islam—or is it four walls and purdah? Islam to me is the faith which gives rights, rather than takes them away. My conscience, my heart, was not satisfied with what they were saying. Why should I take a degree to which I am opposed? What would I do with it?"
Above Humaira's parents, Zainab Bibi and Mohammad Bachal, in the family home
From 7.30am to 8om, the 25 teachers at the Dream Model Street School educate 1,200 students over five shifts. The school is co-educational, the books are free, and there is no uniform. For those who can pay, fees are 30 rupees (20p) a month. Classes start from nursery and run up to eighth standard. The classrooms are partitioned by curtains, their walls alive with drawings and craft. The blackboards are busy with writing, not all of it completely accurate. "Present Simple Tense = Subject + Verb + Object. Anjum looks at wall clock every day". The teachers are in their late teens or early 20s. Most began their own schooling here.
In the evenings there are classes for child labourers. In the afternoons, a two-hour madrassa class, held for tactical, as well as educational, reasons. “Parents agree to send children to our school because of it,” says Tahira, who took over as principal from Humaira six years ago, when she started another job. There are over 50 mosques in Moach Goth, and almost all have a madrassa. "We have seen cases where children have been taken out of the school, put in a madrassa and then talk all day about jihad. One boy, they brainwashed him so much, he pulled his sister out of school. He has become an imam."
Enrolment is one thing, retaining students another. Girls are often pulled out at 12. "The routine", Humaira says, "is matchmaking at 12, engagement at 13, marriage at 14, pregnant at 15. That is why we say we don’t enrol a student, we have to enrol a family." They have made progress. A few years ago, of 50 nursery students, boys and girls, only two would still be attending by fifth standard. That number is now up to 20.
At noon there is an adult literacy class, used mostly by older girls who do not have permission to attend school—or a school to attend. Last year ten girls from Moach Goth matriculated. This was a record. They had studied at Dream’s adult literacy classes, though for the purposes of sitting their matriculation exam they registered with a government ghost school. Reviving those schools is another part of Dream’s agenda. They have already mounted a successful campaign to reopen one of the two abandoned primaries in Moach Goth. Police constables were sent in to clear out the junkies. The teachers—ghost teachers receiving real salaries—were ordered back.
I was accompanied to this school, a day after it had reopened, by two of Dream’s male teachers. Qayoom used to paint spare parts for motorbikes, but quit his job when he realised how much he enjoyed being at Dream. Mujeeb was the younger brother of one of the original teachers. A few months ago he was picked up while standing sentry near the school, during a paramilitary operation to flush out criminals. His misfortune, according to his friends, was that he looked like a Makrani gangster: tall, dark, with matted hair. The Moach Goth gangs mostly respect the school. They may snatch mobile phones from its teachers, but they have never made demands: some of them have young relatives at Dream.
The de-ghosted government primary is as stark as a shell. Every piece of furniture, every fitting seems to have been stolen. Nothing remains, no doors, no windows, not even their frames. The white afternoon light explodes into the bare, ravaged rooms, onto the brown sandscape outside, the thorns on the acacia. There are squares of cardboard scattered on the floor, where students must have sat that morning.
By contrast, the second Dream School premises, under construction a kilometre away and close to Humaira’s original school, gleam with promise. In 2009, an organisation called Shirkat Gah Women’s Resource Centre made a film about Humaira, "A Small Dream". It was shown in Lahore, and Humaira, Tahira and their mother were invited, the first time they had been to the city. Humaira made a speech. The impact went beyond anyone’s expectations. With the donations and networking that followed, teachers could be trained and paid a modest salary. The curriculum and the textbooks could be upgraded. "We need a space," Humaira had told the audience in Lahore. "We can’t afford the rent, and the landlord keeps trying to lock us out. We are scared that the school will shut down."
The first part of the building, on a 500sqft plot, is the result of a gift from a Pakistani company, Engro Vopak, and a Swiss foundation, Volkart. The ground floor is almost done. If further funds come in, two more storeys will be built. "We want to have classes that go up to matric," says Humaira. "We will have chemistry, physics and biology labs, a computer room, a library, an auditorium. We will have outdoor activities in the back yard, a staff room, principal’s room, accounts room. In the back yard we want to put fish and plants and birds. I don’t want this to be a school, I want it to be a paradise for the children of Moach Goth."
In April this year, Humaira was interviewed on stage in New York during the Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Centre. Her involvement was arranged by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Pakistan needs heroes, she says, their stories must be told. When the talk was over, Humaira says, and the lights came up and she saw thousands of women in the auditorium standing and applauding, tears came to her eyes. Things were swimming like a film in her head: the hardships, the house, the village, people’s insistence that "nothing will ever come of this". She was such a small part of such a small place, but look at the respect the audience was giving her. She thought, "I wish my father could see this."
Above Humaira with two of her teaching staff. They must contend with gangsters, paramilitary operations, and the local belief that there's little point in educating children past the age of 12
Mohammad Bachal's House, on a plot the family owns, is today one of the finest in Moach Goth. His family has eased into comfort. Humaira’s first salaried job, at 7,000 rupees (£46) a month, was as a mobiliser in a micro-finance project. She had taken it when rent for their school space increased to 3,000 (£20). Then she began exporting Chinese beauty products from Karachi to Iran—where some of Zainab’s relatives have shops—and earned up to 30,000 rupees (£196) a month, until the border was closed. She now makes a living giving leadership training, and remains president of the school and the Dream Foundation Trust, which runs it.
Shakeel has a job in the granulation department of a pharmaceutical company. A few years ago, when he was out of work, he tried to commit suicide by drinking poison. Tahira gently admonishes him for having scared everyone.
Mohammad Bachal has fractured his hand, and has been persuaded to retire. He thinks he must have been 18 when Pakistan was created, which would make him 84. He looks nearer 64, lean, rugged, with kohl in his eyes and a red Sindhi topi on his head. “It was jahilpan, ignorance,” he says about his years of opposition. "Even an animal will listen to a well-educated person, but illiterates are influenced by illiterates."
Zainab Bibi is wearing a traditional Balochi pashk. Her arm carries traces of an old injury, suffered at her husband’s hands the day he found Humaira leaving for her exam. "I didn’t want my girls to have my life," she says. "I wanted them to become something." The daughters say that Zainab is their hero.
Pakistan does need heroes; but heroism is a permanent hostage. Its fate is unforeseeable. Initiatives begin and are ridiculed, blindsided or murdered. Months before Zahra Shahid Hussain was killed, so was Parveen Rehman. An architect and social worker, she had been documenting land records of the poor in settlements similar to Moach Goth. She was shot dead, allegedly by the land mafia. Months before her, in a part of the country where more than 600 schools have been destroyed or closed down by the Taliban, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for wanting to study.
The courage of a Pakistani hero involves facing the ultimate fact of death. But the fantasy of martyrdom, where it exists, is largely a male one. A heroine needs a more supple courage. She must negotiate: with her emotions, with her adversaries, with her family, with hypocrisies. But not, if she can help it, with her ambition. "If I can teach a few mothers to read a few labels, that will be enough." That is what Humaira Bachal told herself, when she started her school.
Above Pro-Dream graffiti, seen on the road from Karachi airport to the settlement of Moach Goth
Rahul Bhattacharya is a novelist based in Delhi. His book "The Sly Company of People who Care" won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize in 2012
Photographs Emma Hardy