A Christian girl studying at a state school in Pakistan has been told by her teacher that, if she refuses to take a class in Islamic Studies, then she should not be in that school.
Muqadas Sukhraj chose instead to study Ethics, a subject created as an alternative for children from a religious minority background. This Ethics class still draws on Islamic teaching but is often the preferred choice of Pakistani Christian families.
The incident took place at Hazro Government School Number One in Attock, 50 miles from Mardan’s Abdul Wali Khan University, where staff were arrested in April in connection with the murder of a student for allegedly posting blasphemous content on Facebook.
Sukhraj, one of three Christians in her class of over 100, told World Watch Monitor that her problems started in early April “when class teacher, Zahida Parveen unnecessarily began creating problems for me and expressing her displeasure with me because I chose Ethics.
“First, the teacher argued over the textbook of the Ethics class. Then she sent me out of the class as punishment. Later, she told me that if I could not study Islamic education, then why do I study in a Muslim school in the first place? She even told me, that, when she comes into the class, I must leave.
“No classmate or any other teacher has ever behaved like this, except this teacher,” she said.
Sukhraj’s uncle, Munir Nasir, tried to raise the concern with the school and local authorities. (Her father is an elected counselor with the local authority and faced a clash of interests, had he brought the concern himself.)
“Uncle Munir went to school several times to complain but he was not allowed to see the principal because it is a girls’ school,” Sukhraj said.
Her uncle also submitted an application to the Attock district coordination officer, requesting that he deal with the teacher’s attitude towards minorities. He reasoned that the local government should pay attention to the issue, given the government’s promises to tackle religious extremism after the 2014 Taliban attack on an army school, which left 132 students dead.
In his application, Nasir stated that the teacher also told Muslim students not to eat or drink with Sukhraj. “Rather than addressing the matter, Sukhraj was shifted to evening classes,” he added.
The headteacher of Sukhraj’s school was not available for comment.
Saqib Abbasi, head of Zahro police station, responded to Nasir’s complaint. He explained that the school caters for pupils from both nearby villages and the city, and recently it had divided them into two groups – some taught in the day time, some in the evening. Female pupils from villages are taught during the day to allow them to return home safely before nightfall.
Sukhraj, from the city, was moved to the evening when they divided up the class, but she wanted to be taught during the day shift.
Abbasi explained that Sukhraj’s family had asked that she be moved to day-time teaching, but the school’s response was, he said, “if they do it for one student, then they would have to do it for all other students. It is about this issue that her uncle has started sending these applications.”
Nasir feels the police are not sympathetic to his niece’s case. “They asked that Sukhraj go to the police station to give her statement, while the teacher’s statement would be recorded at school.”
(In Pakistan, it is considered an insult if a woman or girl is asked to go to the police station).
Christians in Pakistan’s state schools face persistent problems with the content of textbooks. The 2016 report by Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace said that the government had failed to keep its promise to eradicate religious “hate material” from school textbooks. It confirmed another 2016 report (sponsored by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom) that said “The trend to a more biased curriculum towards religious minorities is accelerating” in Pakistan. It added “These grossly generalized and stereotypical portrayals of religious minority communities signal that they are untrustworthy, religiously inferior, and ideologically scheming and intolerant.”
In December, Pakistani scientist Pervez Hoodbhoy noted how religion was taught to students in the name of science. “When Pakistani students open a physics or biology textbook, it is sometimes unclear whether they are actually learning science or, instead, theology,” he said. “The reason: every science textbook, published by a government-run textbook board in Pakistan, by law must contain in its first chapter how Allah made our world, as well as how Muslims and Pakistanis have created science.”
Kashif Aslam, a researcher at the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a Roman Catholic charity, told World Watch Monitor that many Christian parents want their children to study their own religion. Kashif recently wrote a report on how textbooks were filled with hatred towards religious minorities.