The Real Heroes of Pakistan

News and Press Release
Originally published

April 6, 2011 | by Faisal Bari

The Open Society Foundations have been engaged in improving the quality of education in Pakistan for a number of years now—working with researchers and civil society to support advocacy efforts. I personally became involved when I joined a team researching public schools in the country. At the time, almost everyone believed that the public school system in Pakistan had failed, and they were not wrong. Schools were delivering very poor quality education, at a relatively high cost per child and were not even succeeding in either enrolling or keeping enrolled children in school. The solution being proposed then—and still advocated by many today—was large scale privatization. But we did not agree with the solution.

Our research team, with help from the Open Society Foundations, decided to study the issue in more detail. We decided to look at public sector schools that "worked" and to try to understand how some schools, even a minority, in the public sector, were able to succeed. The idea was to understand what worked and why, and to try to see if those lessons could be applied to other poorly functioning schools. The results of that study, titled What Works and Why, are available, but they are not the subject of this post.

We visited a primary school for girls in a small village in Swabi district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. We reached the school unannounced and quite early in the day. Since there were both male and female members in our team, one of the female members went in to announce our arrival (so that any female members of the school who wanted to observe purdah, and be concealed from the male members of our group, could get their wraparounds).

The headmistress, Maryam Bibi (not her real name), came out to greet and welcome us: weather-beaten, thin, but very high energy, she was all smiles and excited to show us around her four-room school. The school was amazingly clean and orderly. Classes were going on in all the four rooms and some of the verandas as well. And the girls, very confident, very engaged, were busy with their studies. We met the teachers, all present and all very positive about what they were doing in the school, and then we had a session with Maryam Bibi.

Maryam Bibi was in her late 50s, a few years from retirement. She had been in that school for a couple of decades, but had been a teacher since her youth. Maryam Bibi was not from the village, her family lived several hours away. Given her salary and the time and cost of travel she did not go home every day. Instead she stayed in the school from Saturday morning to Thursday evening and went home only on the weekend. The community had made a room for her in the school where she slept at night. She got up every day at six in the morning, and before the students and teachers arrived had swept and dusted the school clean and got everything ready.

Maryam Bibi taught and supervised teaching during the school day, and in the afternoon she coached the elder girls from the village and did this until well into the night. She has taught generations of girls from that village. More than one teacher in the school said that their inspiration for becoming a teacher was the headmistress and they wanted to become Maryam Bibi themselves.

I saw some boys sitting in this primary school too. Maryam Bibi explained that since the boy's primary school was not well run, a lot of parents sent their young boys to her school. What made Maryam Bibi tick? "I learnt this from my elders, I want to teach girls, this in the only thing I ever wanted to do, and I will continue to do it as long as I can." Clearly it was not for the money, work conditions, or benefits that she was in this business. It was her passion for teaching that helped produce some of the best students in the area.

We visited two other schools in nearby villages that day. A boys' school, that was not on our list of good schools and it showed that right away. The teacher was more interested in getting boys to work on the vegetable patch outside the school (and it was not for practical training) and having his cup of tea. We also visited another girls' school that looked a lot like Maryam Bibi's school. We were not surprised to find that the headmistress there, much younger than Maryam Bibi, and a couple of other teachers, had been students of Maryam Bibi. When we mentioned that we had been to Maryam Bibi's school, the headmistress immediately said "she is my teacher, and I am a teacher because of her. She is my role model and I want to be like her." Is there a greater tribute for a teacher?

The education department in Peshawar has tried to transfer Maryam Bibi from her school a number of times, as part of a regular practice of transfers every few years. But every time they tried parents and community leaders from the village have gotten the orders reversed. Although most people in the village are very poor, they have been supporting the school and the efforts of Maryam Bibi in every way they can. Despite the rural and fairly low development setting, this school was an inspiration and a revelation.

Swabi, like a lot of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Pakistan, has been hit badly by fight against extremism in this country. In many places there have been bomb explosions and threats against schools too. And the government continues to spend too little on education and does not accord the priority the sector deserves. But not only have brave souls such as Maryam Bibi remained undaunted, they have also become beacons of hope in our society. And the way communities and parents have supported the teachers shows where the priorities of the communities lie too. Maryam Bibi was not alone. During our research we met a number of women just like Maryam Bibi whose dedication, devotion, and untiring efforts had and were shaping generations. Maryam Bibis of Pakistan are the real heroes of this nation.