Asia-Pacific

Teacher's Murder Heightens Fear in Northwest Pakistan

There have been calls to close schools such as this one across the North-West Frontier Province amid extremist violence. (Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN)

Saadia Jan, 19, bites her nails uncertainly as she perches on the windowsill of her parent's house in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (N.W.F.P.).

Until a few days ago, Saadia had her future neatly chalked out in her mind. "I had decided to become a teacher. In fact, since I was 12 years old, I knew I wanted to be one," she told IRIN.

But, Saadia's plans are now in shreds. "My family says it is too unsafe to teach and that I should opt for something else," she said.

Saadia is engaged to a cousin, from the family's ancestral home in the deeply conservative Khyber Agency, a tribal area lying west of Peshawar, along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

"I had hoped to teach at a school there, where my fiancé lives. But now my family fears it may not be safe," said Saadia.

Gunned Down

The reason for her concern is the killing of a local teacher, Khatoon Bibi, 40, who was gunned down on Sept. 29 in the Mohmand Agency, lying just north of the Khyber Agency.

According to eyewitness accounts, the teacher, who taught at a girls' community school in the Atokhel area, was shot dead on her way home from school by unidentified assailants on a motorcycle.

Ironically, the incident occurred close to a security checkpoint. Local people were reportedly too afraid even to move her body from the road. Local police later removed it to Ghalanai, headquarters of the Mohmand Agency.

"If such things can happen in broad daylight, out in the open, then what safety is there for us teachers?" asked Uzaira Afridi, 45, who has taught for 10 years at a Ghalanai girl's school.

Around 100 girls' schools across Mohmand Agency closed their doors for a day to show solidarity with the assassinated teacher and to demand greater security.

Threats

"There had been threats to these schools. Teachers were told to wear the burqa [head-to-foot veil] or face death, but the authorities declined to take these threats seriously," said Uzma Khan, a Peshawar-based teacher-trainer.

Schools in other parts of the N.W.F.P. have received threats and primary schools that offer classes for both girls and boys have been told in some cases to segregate classrooms.

The incident comes amid a wave of extremism sweeping through the N.W.F.P., according to analysts. Dozens have died in incidents of terrorism, and fatwas (religious edicts) threatening nongovernmental organizations (N.G.O.'s) have appeared in several towns. Women activists and teachers are often a key target in such attacks.

On Oct. 5 the decapitated head of a still unnamed woman was found in Ghalanai. The head had been wrapped in a shawl, and a note with it, in Pashto—the language most widely spoken across the N.W.F.P.—said the woman had been a prostitute and had been "punished" after a trial by witnesses and jury.

While there has been a new wave of threats to female teachers and girls' schools recently, such incidents are linked to attacks that have taken place over the past few years, say observers.

Hacked to Death

"I gave up teaching at a small primary school near the town of Kohat [about 60 kilometers south of Peshawar] after the murder of two teachers in the neighboring Orakzai Agency. I am a mother of two small children and the fate of those two women made me too afraid to continue, though I am a qualified teacher," said Habiba Haroon, 28, now a housewife.

The incident she is referring to took place in June 2006. Sayeda Jan and Umme Salma, with Salma's children, Laila, 10, and, Haider, 4, were spending the hot summer night at the Government Girl's High School in the village of Khwaga Cheri in the Orakzai Agency, located southwest of Peshawar.

They had been hired by the Barani Areas Development Program, an A.D.P. project, to offer vocational training to women and girls. In the dead of night, the two women were hacked to death, alongside the children—apparently by tribesmen determined to deliver a clear-cut message to N.G.O. workers and other teachers.

'Terrified'

The purpose seems to have been largely served. "Many women are now terrified of working as teachers. In other cases, their families prevent them from doing so," said Uzma Khan, who said teacher trainers had been "asked by N.G.O.'s we work with" to stay away from areas like Malakand, Dir and Orakzai, because of the "growing risks."

At the end of September, the Alliance for Protection of Human Rights, a group of Peshawar-based civil society organizations, condemned the "growing violence" in the province and sought protection from the provincial government.

But fear is keeping dozens of female teachers out of classrooms in Mohmand Agency, Malakand and other parts of the N.W.F.P., where a profession once regarded as immensely suitable for women has become one that is now seen to bring with it considerable risks and dangers, according to teachers and activists. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.

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