Landikotal, Khyber Agency: Rukhsana Sultan is a teacher at the lone girls school in Landikotal in Khyber Agency, a tribal district along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
For a woman from the troubled border region, Sultan’s choice of profession and the subjects she teaches fall squarely in the male domain – more so when one considers she works in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) where women rarely venture out of home, much less to work.
Sultan is an instructor in physical education. When she is not busy training girls in physical education, she teaches in the class and also doubles up as sports-instructor, playing indoor and outdoor games with students.
She says physical exercise and sports builds up confidence among girls, encouraging them to excel in the male-dominated tribal society that stress purdah for women, with few opportunities for them to make a mark in fields outside the confines of homes.
“I chose a profession dominated by men because I feel nothing is impossible for women to achieve,” said Sultan. “For example, women can play sports. My students not only play cricket and football but also take part in outdoor games like long jump, high jump and other indoor games.”
Women professionals like Sultan are hard to come by in the tribal society where a conservative cultural milieu discourages them from working, even when parents only want women to teach their girls in schools. Over the last 15 years, conflict in the region where schools have been bombed by militants and safety has become a major concern, women from outside the tribal region do not venture there for jobs, worsening the crisis of availability of women professionals.
“An important aspect of the girls’ educational institutions in the tribal areas is the non-availability of qualified and trained teachers locally,” says the research paper “Socio-Economic and Political Status of Women in FATA -The Process of Development and Phenomenon of Militancy” by Naila Aman Khan, a researcher at FATA Research Center. “Girls’ schools in FATA could not be efficiently and meaningfully run without the availability of the qualified female teachers. Traditionally, there have been a very few women teachers available in FATA as most of the female imparting education in the girls’ schools of FATA have been going to and from on regular basis from the adjoining district of KPK [Khyber Pakhtunkwa provice]. However, due to adverse security situation many of these female teachers have stopped going to FATA. Some of them were even killed by the militants,” says the report.
In the absence of local professionals, it is women from local minorities based in the tribal areas who have risen to the occasion because they are not ethnic tribal Pashtuns. Even though locally integrated, religious minorities in the tribal areas have maintained their progressive outlook on women education and employment even when they follow purdah and stay sensitive to local sensibilities. One such woman teacher is Yasmeen Ara, 35, belonging to the local Christian community.
Born in Landikotal subdivision in Khyber Agency, Ara attended a local girls school before going for a bachelor’s degree and a Primary Teaching Course from the virtual Allama Iqbal Open University because there are no higher education institutions for women locally. In 2007, Ara was appointed a primary teacher at the Government Girls Primary School in Ashkhel in Landikotal.
“We have never felt as a minority group in the strict Pashtun society because we have received kindness and respect from the local population,” Ara told Truth Tracker. “It is for this reason that around 60 Christian women have adopted teaching as a profession to increase the ratio of girl education and empower women.”
Haidar Ali Afridi, Assistant Agency Education Officer, says there are 55 girls-schools including a Girls Higher Secondary School and four Government Middle Schools in Landikotal. More than 20,000 girls study in these schools.
Afridi said they needed at least three teachers at each school but due to unavailability of qualified female teachers, they had hired women from the Christian community to teach in schools.
“Most of the minority female teachers are dedicated to their jobs and dutiful,” said Afridi. “Still several positions for female teachers are vacant in primary and higher secondary schools. The cultural taboo of not allowing girls to take up jobs is dying and hopefully in the coming few years, we will not face shortage of female teachers.”
Kainat Andreas, another teacher from the Christian community, said she did not take up teaching by choice but to support her parents. She said teaching was honourable, but she wanted to be a nurse.
“I wanted to be in the medical field but my parents asked me to adopt teaching as a profession,” said Andreas. “Teaching was the last option for me but there are no other job opportunities in FATA for women. I am now happy with my job and motivated that other minority and Muslim girls are taking up teaching to support their families.”
Kiran Edwin, who recently completed intermediate schooling, is teaching at a private girls -school in Landikotal. She said her parents and brothers were jobless so she was forced to take up a job. She said due to shortage of female teachers locally, several of her cousins were employed in different state-run and private schools.
Arshad Masih, Chairman Christian Community in Landikotal, said he had given his children Muslim names and they speak Pashtu, the language of the local population. However, despite integration and the services the minority people rendered, they were still second-class citizens in Pakistan. He said after a long struggle for basic and constitutional rights, the state of Pakistan had issued “B category” domicile certificates to minority members.
“Christians, even though they are considered a minority in Pakistan, have served the people and the state of Pakistan by working in different institution of Pakistan,” said Arshad. “It is time our services are recognized.”