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The War on Education

by Zehra Naqvi

© 2015 Neha Phukan | Karachi Memories

Mrs. Jones was not very good at telling the difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are relatively from the same area on the map, have similar sounding names and links to the Taliban, and are both implicated in the ongoing “War on Terror.” It can be difficult for a middle-aged white elementary schoolteacher to keep up with which one’s which. She should not be blamed for sometimes using them interchangeably. After all, it does not make all that big of a difference. Tomato, tuhmato, Potato, putahto. Afghanistan, Pakistan. Same difference.

In March 2001, the first thing I, aged seven, am taught on my first day at school in Ladner: “Canada is a free country.” An older student is eager to tell me this as we wait outside the school for the morning bell to ring. He clearly expects me to be blown away by the profundity of this statement, spelled out to me in loud and slow English. Ladner, at the time, is a predominantly white, middle-class suburban village. The small town, located near a fishing harbor, is old, and the families here have inhabited it for generations. My brother and I are two of four brown children in the entire school. My family has just moved to Canada, and our teachers and classmates are quick to teach us our place in Canadian society.

During our first few months in Ladner, we are often drilled about the freeness of Canada. It confuses us. Why is everyone so preoccupied about telling us how free Canada is? My brother and I often discuss it and giggle, “Pakistan is freer. You don’t even have to wear seat belts in Pakistan.”

We miss our cousins there, and the car rides with everyone packed in like we were out to break the world record for the number of humans squeezed into a five-seater Toyota. Arms and knees jabbing in to each other, the younger ones in the laps of the older ones, heads bent against the car roof, the windows rolled down for the humid Karachi air, the poor car sagging with the weight of the Naqvi clan as it inched forward. It did not happen often, but on the rare occasion my father agreed to such car rides, we all felt a proud sense of achievement at being able to fit everyone in.


It is 2002. We have all now entered the post-9/11 era. I am in fourth grade, still in Ladner, still brown and Muslim and Pakistan-born. Still only three other brown students at the school. At this point in history, George W. Bush is the president of the world. Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden and Taliban are still the hot topic. Everyone around me at school is still on board to continue bombing Afghanistan in order to liberate its women. In this moment in time, Afghanistan equals Kalashnikov rifles, terrorists, and burqa-clad women. Afghanistan equals no school for girls. It is now almost two years since I have moved to Canada. I am still learning to adjust—the B.C dialect is quickly replacing my South Asian accent.

By late 2002, the school is well versed in the War on Terror rhetoric. Teachers like to discuss it in class. Students bring newspapers for show and tell. There is something exciting about discussing war and freedom and good versus evil in the classrooms of the elementary school. We all want to talk about how bad Afghanistan is under Taliban law. To collectively hate and condemn a common enemy satisfies some part of us. I go home and repeat to my parents the lessons I have been learning, “In Afghanistan, they have public executions! In Afghanistan, the Taliban don’t let women leave the house! In Afghanistan, girls can’t go to school!” It is all so terrible and horribly thrilling. Pakistan is not all that much in the news, and I don’t think any of this has anything to do with me personally.

Then one day Mrs. Jones talks about how lucky we all were to be able to go to school, how good our education system is, and says, “In Afghanistan, where Zehra’s from, girls can’t even go to school.”

We all are sitting on the rug looking up at Mrs. Jones who sits on a chair. She looks at me. Everyone looks at me. As if I am supposed to say something. I freeze. In shock.
Wait, Mrs. Jones, I’m not from Afghanistan. I went to school in Pakistan. I even skipped Grade 1. Both my parents are educators; they both have Masters degrees. Of course I went to school. I loved school. Girls go to school. Mrs. Jones, you’ve got it all wrong!

“I’m not from Afghanistan. I’m from Pakistan,” is all I manage to say. She moves on.
Again and again, she mistakes me for being from Afghanistan. I correct her each time. I am so offended. Afghanistan is the embarrassing place, where the Taliban are, where Osama bin Laden is, the place American and Canadian forces had to invade to bring peace. Pakistan is different. In Pakistan girls do go to school. How could she mix them up? But she continues to do so. Tomato, tuhmato. Potato, putahto. Afghanistan, Pakistan.


In a radio address entitled “Report on the Taliban’s War Against Women,” Laura Bush graciously declares:

“Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. Yet the terrorists who helped rule that country now plot and plan in many countries. And they must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”

Everyone knows invading a war-ravaged country, bombing its cities, creating mass starvation, causing thousands of civilian deaths is the finest and surest way to bring dignity, liberty, and freedom to the women of the country. Bomb them till they’re free.
Perhaps Mrs. Jones nodded along if she heard the address. Perhaps she felt good that she was educating that immigrant girl who was now lucky to be able to go to school without fear of punishment thanks to Western generosity.


I am nine years old and sitting in the masjid with my friend Najia. We are doing our homework together. There is a map in our school planners, and I flip it open and point to Pakistan. “I’m from Pakistan. Where are you from?” I assume she would also be from somewhere else. She hesitates. Looks around. There are children playing, loud and busy.

“Don’t tell anyone,” she says. We both hunch over the small world map. She points to Afghanistan. “I hate it. It’s so embarrassing.” I instantly think about Osama Bin Laden and Taliban and bearded men in turbans waving around AK-47s and public executions and women screaming and girls banned from school. I feel sorry for her. I draw back and close the planner, wondering what it is like to be her.

As the years go by and the presence of the Pakistani Taliban grows stronger, I wait to be embarrassed by my Pakistani heritage. But there is no heated obsession in the news with Pakistan as there was with Afghanistan. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that my family no longer watches cable news. I do not feel as Najia had felt.

At age nine, Najia had internalized the media’s narrative. At age nine, I had swallowed it whole and projected it onto her, much like Mrs. Jones had done to me. All three of us were unaware that Bin Laden had been funded and armed by the Americans during the Cold War, or that America in partnership with its allies (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia) had extensively funded and trained the Mujahideen, supporting their violent ideology in order to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Back then the Mujahideen, who later became modern-day Taliban, were called freedom fighters by the US.

These were all facts I learned much later. Perhaps much too late. When I watched a video of Hillary Clinton admitting this, I put my face in my hands and cried. I wished I could go back and tell Najia. It is not our fault. We have been the victims. The people who got caught up in a chess game. The collateral damage. We are not the ones who should be ashamed.


For the graduation ceremony after her teacher’s training program in Vancouver, my mother has chosen to wear shalwar kamiz. I admire her confidence. The material is pink cotton, ironed and starched, and it sits elegantly on her frame. She stands out among the conventional black dresses and suits at the graduation.

“Are you sure you want to dress like this?” I asked her, as she got ready. “You’re going to look so weird.”

“Why not? I’m going to be bold and wear what I like,” she said. I squirmed. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing shalwar kamiz in front of my fourth grade classmates, I thought to myself. I knew she was trying to teach me a lesson. I wear a black velvet top with sequins at the neckline. It is a busy ceremony at a golf course clubhouse.

My father strikes a conversation with the instructor about the training program the organization offers in Karachi. He mentions that all the students in the program in Karachi are women.

“Why does the organization not also encourage men to obtain teacher’s training and become educators in Pakistan?” It is more of a conversational topic. Perhaps my father shouldn’t have asked. What would the instructor know about Pakistan?

The instructor nods. He explains: it’s because co-education is taboo in Pakistan. Men and women can’t study alongside each other.

My father is surprised. He holds back a laugh. “I studied in co-education all my life in Pakistan. All my siblings did. It is very common.”

The instructor shrugs and the topic changes.


In 2004, my family moves from Ladner to Queensborough. A large percentage of the middle school is South Asian. NATO is not directly invading Pakistan so there is little need for imperialist feminist propaganda or jingoism in the same manner as last time. US drones are just silently bombing Pakistan.

My memories of Karachi are still fresh—and Taliban, terrorism, and girls not going to school are concepts that are not present in any of my childhood memories. At this point, I still have trouble associating myself and the Pakistan I know with the War on Terror.

My parents are showing old photos of Pakistan to a parent of a preschooler at my mother’s school in Queensborough. This one is of us in Gilgit. We are sitting on a grassy slope on white garden chairs, drinking chai. There is a grey tent just behind us. The photo captures the lush green mountainside, slowly sloping down. There are purple and azure mountains at the horizon. The sky is clear blue. The grass blades are nodding with the breeze. My mother is young and fresh-faced, sitting in a large grey chador. I am three, sitting in my older cousin’s lap, shyly leaning into her. We are all smiling.

My parents want to show her the beauty of northern Pakistan. We lived in Gilgit for six months. It is close to the border of China and Afghanistan. I don’t remember it. But I love looking at the picturesque landscape of snow-capped mountains and blue rivers. My parents had gotten tired of the noise and rush of the city and had decided to move to this remote district renowned for its natural beauty. We didn’t last long there. We were city folks, and we soon moved back to the bustle, the crowds, the pollution, and the energy in Karachi.

The preschooler’s parent nods at the photo. She’s middle-aged and white and her family has lived in Queensborough for generations. She hesitates, then carefully asks, “So, was this tent your home?”

“No, no, we were camping,” my father tells her, a little taken aback.

“Ah,” she says.

One day, she is telling us about Queensborough and what it used to look like.

“It’s not the same anymore. We’re thinking of moving to Kelowna,” she tells my mother. Maybe she means that Queensborough has too many immigrant families. There is a gurdwara down the road. There are many new South Asian families settling into the neighborhood and slowly the older white families are moving out. She’s a very nice woman, but I wonder if that is also how she feels about us. We’re changing her town.


In 2009 I hear about Malala Yousefzai. I hear about how Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has occupied Swat. Swat is in the north, close to Gilgit.

My father plays a documentary profiling the Pakistani girl whose school was shut down by the Taliban. I am shaken. This is not the Pakistan I know. I read Malala’s blog and slowly realize my own position of privilege within the story of Pakistan and its war on education. Being an urban middle class girl from Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan—a city with a dozen private schools in every neighborhood—I had somehow assumed that girls not being able to go to school simply because of their sex was an exaggeration. From the Western media, I had been given an image of Pakistan as being intolerant of girls’ education and the Pakistan I knew was the opposite, so I had discarded that narrative. As a Pakistani Muslim girl in a post-9/11 world, I questioned everything the mainstream media told me—especially things about my own country of birth. They’re like Mrs. Jones, I would think—they just don’t know. But now, as I read Malala’s blog, I begin to face the fact that the Tehreek-e-Taliban and their poisonous ideology have spread in certain regions, particularly in the north.

On October 11th 2012, Malala is shot in the head for daring to speak about girls’ education. The gunshot is heard around the world—most loudly in the Pakistani communities. There are prayers being recited for her health and recovery. We desperately need her to live.

We sign online petitions to have her nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. That year she does not win. But in the next year she does, and Pakistanis rejoice and congratulate each other. As she becomes the West’s darling, however, some begin to feel uncomfortable. Her experience helps to justify the War on Terror. Her meeting the Obamas at the White House makes some suspicious. “Doesn’t she know the Taliban, her enemy, are a result of the very people in the White House?” they question.

I’m talking to a Karachi acquaintance about Malala and he says, “You know, Malala is a CIA agent.”

I’m so shocked I can’t speak. I realize the War on Terror has often left me speechless. I don’t want to be rude so I finally manage to say, “Are you sure?”

He continues, “Oh yes. I read an article talking about how she’s not even Pashtun. She’s actually white and from Poland. Her real name is Jane. A doctor who had her DNA from a sample of her earwax confirmed it. ”

I repeat, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, it’s all very strange, but it makes sense. I mean how could this village girl from Swat be able to speak in perfect English with such confidence and give such great speeches. She has been trained by the CIA.”

The article the man quoted is a satirical piece published in the Pakistani Dawn News blog mocking Malala conspiracy theories. I later point this out to him. He still insists that it doesn’t add up. She has to be an agent.

I understand exactly what he means. How can girls from Afghanistan/Pakistan come from educated backgrounds? How can Pakistani men and women have coeducation with all the taboos in their society? How can Pakistani families live in a house? How can a village schoolgirl be brave and intelligent? It’s just all simply unheard of. And if someone defies the stereotype—well, they’re an exception. They are of little consequence, or deserve to be shot in the head, or they are a CIA agent.


Michelle Obama, in an open letter about making education accessible to girls, writes:
“Even when girls do have the chance to attend school, they do so at great risk. For example, in some countries, there are terrorist organizations who view educated girls as a serious threat and do everything in their power to keep girls from going to school.”

The American drones in northern Pakistan “targeting terrorists” have killed an estimated 168-204 Pakistani children. Dead children can’t go to school.

Every week there are new killings, attacks, and shootings. The violence is escalating so rapidly that there is thick fear and a growing sense of hopelessness among Pakistanis. The drone attacks targeting terrorists are fuelling more militancy.

On February 28th, 2012, three buses full of Shia Muslims from Gilgit are stopped in northern Pakistan. They are on their way home to Gilgit. Masked militants force several men out of the busses and line them up by the roadside. The militants check the men’s identification documents to confirm that they’re Shia. Then the militants shoot them to death. I have a difficult time picturing eighteen men and three children being murdered against the backdrop of the pristine, untouched, mountainous beauty of northern Pakistan.

I think about that photo of my family in the mountains in Gilgit—smiling, the clear sky, the fresh breeze and the vivid greenery. My family is Shia. It could have been us.

I stand outside the Pakistani consulate on Hastings Street in Vancouver with a group of friends, candles, and signs saying, “Stop the Shia Killings.” Some drivers honk for us. Then we blow out the candles and go home.


On December 16, 2014, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan enters a school in Peshawar and opens fire. One hundred and forty-five die. One hundred and thirty-two are schoolchildren, murdered in their classes. All of them boys from the ages eight to eighteen. Don’t kill the little ones—only the older students—were the orders. I wonder how they decided who was too young to die.

The news reaches me in the middle of the night. My partner and I embrace each other and cry. We cannot sleep for nights to come. There is no recovering from this. Least of all for the families and classmates of the dead.

“Write a poem,” a friend says.

“I can’t.” There are things I can’t write about. Not yet.

Taliban literally means “students.” Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan translates as “Students’ Movement of Pakistan.” I derive no pleasure from the irony.


I am in a creative writing workshop at university and I share a chapter of my fantasy novel set in a South Asian world.

“I had a challenging time picturing where this is taking place and in what time. A lot of the foods mentioned seemed Middle Eastern, but some of the other aspects seemed Western, like bears and wooded graveyards with iron fences,” one student comments. I didn’t realize graveyards and iron fences were solely Western phenomena. Or that South Asian meant Middle Eastern. Maybe it would have made more sense to show bombs and burqas than trees and fences.

So much in my life, and in the lives of many Pakistanis, can be divided on a pre-9/11 and post-9/11 bases, including the experience of education, whether it be in Canada or in Pakistan. I am privileged to not have to face being shot at for going to school, or bombed by a drone on my way to school. But being in Canada does not mean I was not affected. We all have been. The War on Terror is a War on Education for all those involved. From elementary school to university, the way I am perceived continues to be coloured by the ongoing war.

It hasn’t always been violence and grief. And even now, it isn’t all violence and grief. Despite everything, Karachi is experiencing an education boom with new private schools popping up every month (the tuition fees also continue to rise).

Each time I am back in Karachi, I sit on a rooftop with my cousins and we watch the sun set over the city. The fruit-sellers wheeling home, the eagles in the sky, the children with colorful backpacks returning from tutoring. The neighborhood muezzin performs the evening’s call to prayer from a minaret and a hush falls. I can feel the sea breeze through my shalwar kameez. The daily cricket match on the street comes to an end. Fathers disembark from their motorcycles and go inside with bags of tandoori roti wrapped in newspapers. Mothers call out from the doors for their children to come inside. It is time to go home, to eat, to pray, to be with your family, and to do your homework.

There is a war going on. It is still unfolding. But sometimes, for a moment, we manage to let it slip from memory and continue to live.

Names have been changed to protect the privacy of people mentioned.

Zehra-Naqvi_bio-picZehra Naqvi is a Karachi-born writer and poet. She is a co-creator of Breaking the Fast Blog. She writes and edits for The Talon and has written for Schema Magazine. Zehra is a student of Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of British Columbia. She enjoys writing about gender, politics and decolonization. Zehra lives in Vancouver, Canada, and can be found hastily scribbling down ideas while waiting at bus stops.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fatima Aziz #

    Thank you for this wonderful piece of literature. You really managed to express yourself and allow others to relate to your story.

    January 3, 2016
  2. Masoom Rizvi #

    expressive narrative, portraying real scenario, great

    May 28, 2016

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