BY ALIYA BASHIR
A Kashmiri woman has worked to increase the literacy rate of women and raise girls’ participation in education in her neighborhood despite fierce opposition from local men. Over the past 27 years, she has helped more than 100 women learn to read and write in her informal adult literacy class. Men and women in the community now see her as a local hero for changing attitudes toward education.
SRINAGAR:Hafiza Khan climbs the outdoor staircase of her home and enters a small room. Reed mats, shawls and fabrics cover the floor, and sunlight floods through the windows. Setting her books on the floor, she steps into an alcove, extracts a handmade chart, and hangs it on a wall. Khan, 48, is preparing for one of the women’s groups that she hosts every Sunday in Want Mohalla, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. The women, ranging in age from 30 to 55, start coming in. One carries her sleeping infant. Soon there are 15 women in the room, eagerly chatting and laughing. These women are here for one thing – to learn from Khan. “I don't think there is a woman in our area who has not been inspired by her work.” -- Shaqeela Watloo, a former student of Hafiza Khan Since 1987, Khan has been conducting informal literacy trainings to teach women in her neighborhood to read and write Kashmiri. They also discuss various subjects, including religion, finances, women’s rights and health. “When I started in 1987, our area was totally ignorant about education,” she says. “Boys were not going to school, and schooling for girls was not even talked about due to the conservative mindset.” The only school in the area was a government primary school, says Khan, who moved to Want Mohalla in 1987 after getting married. “But nobody considered this a school,” Khan says. “There was only one teacher and one classroom for all five grades, and the teacher was usually absent or would knit sweaters during school hours. No families in the area sent their children to this school.” More popular was the informal education center run by the state Social Welfare Department, which attracted students with its flexible schedules and individualized learning plans. Tuition at both the school and center was free, but the center did not require families to buy uniforms or supplies as the school sometimes did. Khan started teaching at the center the year she moved to the neighborhood. She had no formal training as a teacher, but she had studied through eighth grade. “I was the first woman in this area who had gone to school,” Khan says. The informal education center aimed to attract the younger generation to education, she says. “In the center, I used to teach almost 25 children from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Khan says. “During the break, I would also teach 25 women and girls how to write their names, how to sign their names, and other basic usage of words.” She devoted her one-hour lunch break to teaching women and girls who did not attend her formal classes. She found that parents were less open to sending their daughters to the center than they were to enrolling their sons. “Girls were encouraged to learn household chores and vocational skills,” she says. So Khan began to visit the families in her community to talk to them about the general importance of education and the specific benefits for their daughters. She tried to motivate parents to send their girls to the center. “The girls had no rights,” Khan says. During these visits, Khan realized the importance of convincing the mothers of the benefits of education, so she invited them to her home on the weekends to learn to read and write Kashmiri. The informal education center in Want Mohalla closed in 1992, by which time many of the younger children had started attending the government school, Khan says. Khan educated more than 150 children, ages 10 to 18, in her years at the center. Khan continues to lead two Sunday learning groups for women in her neighborhood. She has registered more than 100 women in the informal literacy trainings. Khan says informal education played a key role in changing attitudes toward education in Want Mohalla. “Due to the nonformal education concept, people actually started to understand and think about educating their children,” she says. “Earlier they didn’t pay any attention. But for the past 10 years now, there is a change in the attitude towards education.” This shift in Want Mohalla reflects a larger trend in the state. The literacy rate in Jammu and Kashmir state more than doubled – from 31 percent in 1981 to 67 percent in 2011 – says C.S. Sapru, the joint chief principal census officer of the state Ministry of Home Affairs. The female literacy rate soared from 18 percent in 1981 to 56 percent in 2011. Shaqeela Watloo, 36, credits Khan’s activism for the change in local attitudes toward education. Watloo joined Khan’s women’s group 15 years ago. She learned to read and write and also gained self confidence, she says. Watloo’s three daughters were able to enroll in school because Khan persuaded her in-laws to allow them to study, she says. Now a passionate supporter of Khan’s work, Watloo helps her with the women’s group and sometimes substitutes for her. “I don't think there is a woman in our area who has not been inspired by her work,” Watloo says. Nearly 700 women live in Want Mohalla. Watloo and other women in the neighbourhood affectionately call Khan “Sister-ji” – using an Urdu suffix that expresses respect and love. Khan also stands up for issues other than women’s education, Watloo says. “Once a woman in our area was beaten to a pulp by her husband,” she says, recounting a now-famous local story. “Sister-ji intervened and slapped that man. She told [the] husband that beating a woman shows the weakness and inhumane approach which nobody should bear.” Khan received surprising support for the nontraditional action in this conservative community, where women typically look down while walking and do not speak in public. But Khan did not always draw this support while promoting education in the community, she says. Soon after she began working at the education center in 1987, men in the neighborhood spread rumors that she was misleading girls and women to defy their families. “Posters were pasted in my neighborhood with abusive remarks,” Khan says. “My in-laws didn’t want me to continue my work. But I didn’t listen to them.” Within a few months after she started her work, her husband gave her an ultimatum, she says. “I still can’t forget the day when my husband warned me about a divorce,” Khan says. “I was given a choice to choose my personal life over social service.” Ultimately, she convinced her husband of the value of her work, and today he supports her educational activities, she says. Their two older sons completed their secondary education and are now working, while their younger son and daughter are still in school. Community members now consider Khan a hero. Muhammad Maqbool Want is a community mobilizer with Koshish, a local nongovernmental organization that focuses on children’s issues, including education. He accompanies Khan to government meetings at which she needs the assistance of a male colleague and helps her to access information and services required for her volunteer work. Want is among the many community members who credit Khan for successfully petitioning the authorities to rehabilitate the neighborhood school. “She has not only helped the people – especially women – in day-to-day affairs, but she has even managed to motivate the authorities to restart a closed primary school and upgrade that to a middle school,” he says. In 2008, the government revamped the school, added grades six through eight and hired three teachers, Khan says. She notes that this is an improvement, though still not sufficient to teach all children adequately. Khan continues to visit families today, encouraging them to keep their children in school and to send them to university and vocational training programs offered by government agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Young people in Want Mohalla are completing their secondary school education at schools in other neighborhoods and obtaining more lucrative employment opportunities thanks to Khan’s influence, Want says. “Instead of low-income jobs, young girls are now getting vocational training,” he says. “The educated boys are also earning a better income.” After primary or secondary school, girls and young women take advantage of vocational training to learn to make traditional Kashmiri crafts and to work as entrepreneurs or suppliers to larger companies. Because they are mastering how to make traditional shawls with hand embroidery, curtains and intricate woven carpets at a more complex level than they used to learn at home, they are raising their earning power. Many of the young men go into private-sector jobs after they complete their secondary education, Want says. They work in shops, in the telecommunications sector, or as salesmen for distribution companies. Previously, young men did carpet weaving at home or worked as laborers at farms and fisheries. Khan also visits homes in the area to encourage parents to enroll their children in the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme, a program of the Social Welfare Department that aims to improve children’s health and development. Khan has worked as a helper in the program since 2007. “Earlier, I was only focusing on spreading awareness of education of girls in the area,” she says. “But now I want to work to improve their overall status – be it in education, equal rights, good health – and to speak against domestic violence and many similar issues. I want to work together with them for a safer and better future for them.”
COURTESY: GLOBAL PRESS JOURNALThe Path to Participation Initiative from World Pulse and No Ceilings