A religious extremist group that is determined to prevent girls from going to school in Pakistan's Balochistan province left a bizarre warning on Tuesday outside a private school: "This is your last chance," read a hand-written threatening letter that had been affixed outside the main entrance of the best known local school, the Oasis School. They had also left a padlock and a chain to formally shut down the school. The letter urged the school management to keep the school closed the way it was. Any attempts to unlock the institution, they warned, would lead to deadly consequences.
Mohamamd Hussain, the owner of the private school, has genuine reasons to take the threat seriously. Last week, activists belonging to the same underground religious group had almost killed him had several female students from his school not interfered and thwarted the assault. While the attackers failed to assassinate Mr. Hussain, a former major in the Oman Army and now a champion of girls' education in his native Pakistan-Iran border town of Panjgur, they burned down his vehicle which he used for transporting girls to their school.
Political parties and civil society organizations are increasingly protesting across Balochistan against the government's tolerance for and inaction toward the group that is forcefully preventing girls from going to school. Local residents in Panjgur district say thousand of people marched against the disruption of girls education. These protests are some of the biggest ever witnessed in the entire history of the small border town in which women and children have actively participated and denounced the closure of girls schools. In Quetta, Balochistan's capital, according to Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, hundreds of political and social activists protested outside the local press club to demand immediate protection from the government for the endangered schools.
Why is our response to the closure of dozens of girls' schools in Pakistan, the world's third largest recipient of American foreign assistance, not as loud and clear as it was after the attack on Malala Yousafzai? Apparently because the story from Balochistan does not have a strong counter-terrorism angle that could connect the issue with the war on terror. It seems that the Pakistani media and the international governments instantly reacted to the shooting of Malala Yousafzai because it provided them a wonderful opportunity to raise fingers at the Taliban and tell the world, "These are the bad guys we are fighting in Afghanistan.".
On the contrary, lack of coverage in the media and the absolute silence of organizations working for girls' education, including, ironically, the Malala Fund, toward the disturbing developments in Balochistan sums up the whole story: Girls' education has also become an in-demand topic only to manipulate certain situations. Wherever there appear no signs of gaining political milage or media publicity, international organizations, including the United Nations, do not intervene. Ignoring an issue at a nascent stage when it shows symptoms of a larger crisis can cost us too much. Balochistan is one such region where the future of thousands of girls is at risk and the Pakistani government is neither willing to avert the catastrophe nor is it coming under sufficient international pressure to do something about it.
Closing the doors of education to the people of Balochistan seems to be consistent with Pakistan's policy of suppression of the ethnic Baloch population that wants absolute control over the affairs of their province. There has been a systematic campaign to dissuade Balochistan's children and young boys and girls from going to school or engage in any educational activities.
Besides the fresh threats to girls' schools, Pakistan's unabated military strikes and search operations have killed hundreds of young Baloch college students. Thousands of others have gone missing since General Musharraf unleashed force to tighten the military's control over mineral-wealth province. University campuses in Balochistan frequently come under raids by the security forces. This has alerted politically conscious students. Many of these students do not concur with the government's political views. Hence, they are compelled to live in hiding in order to skip extrajudicial arrest, torture and, in worse possible situations, murder in government custody. In March, the security forces abducted Zahid Baloch, the chairman of the Baloch Students Organization. No body knows his whereabouts. Few are optimistic that he would ever return home safe and sound. Baloch students who were arrested and subsequently allowed to return home are few and far between.
Going to school has also become almost impossible for the children from the minority Shia, Hazara community in Balochistan. A bloody war against the Hazaras, waged by a Sunni extremist group, the Lahskar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), has killed hundreds of innocent Shia Muslims belonging to the Hazara ethnic group. These attacks have instilled widespread fear among Hazara children. While the Hazara kids are too scared to go to school, teenagers among them are doing whatever it takes to run away from Quetta or Pakistan to find safe place to get out of the radar of the murderous Sunni extremists. The Pakistani government has shown too much tolerance for the LeJ that such a behavior has given credence to speculations about the State's complicity in the ongoing war against the Shia, Hazara population.
Likewise, the country's security forces have forced several private schools, computer and language centers in parts of Balochistan on unsubstantiated charges that they were promoting dissenting political views among the local youth. In one such desperate attempt to create panic among the students, the Frontier Corps (F.C.), a federal paramilitary force, raided a book fair in Turbat district in January this year and confiscated thousands of books, including the biographies of prominent Indian leaders Gandhi and Nehru.
The Pakistani government, repeatedly accused of supporting the anti-education extremist groups, should understand that an educated young population asks hard but intelligent questions whereas an uneducated population will create unimaginable chaos and unrest. Pakistan already has too much internal turmoil to deal with. Opening new fronts of chaos and confusion will prove suicidal for Islamabad. Keeping Balochistan's children in school, instead of tolerating and renting the services of freelance Islamic extremist groups to shut down these institutions, will serve Pakistan's long-term interests.