Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 14 October 2019

Schools in Imran Khan stronghold back down in face of abaya advice anger

Critics said official order to cover up appeared to punish girls for sexual harassment, rather than putting the blame on perpetrators

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan listens to the national anthem as he arrives at the legislative assembly in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on August 14, 2019 to mark the country's Independence Day. AFP
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan listens to the national anthem as he arrives at the legislative assembly in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on August 14, 2019 to mark the country's Independence Day. AFP

Education officials in Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's electoral heartland sparked outcry and then appeared to back down after schoolgirls were ordered to cover up with an abaya or chador to prevent sexual harassment.

A “most urgent and important” order was sent on Monday to government schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, telling all secondary schoolgirls to “veil/conceal/cover up their selves”.

The advice was given “in order to protect them from any unethical incident” according to a memo widely shared on social media.

Education officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial government, which is ruled by Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, said the order had been made because of a growing number of complaints of sexual harassment.

Some girls had a habit of wearing the shawl-like dupatta “which is not sufficient to cover their bodies”, rather than the more enveloping abaya, one official told Dawn newspaper.

Another official said a recent door-to-door enrolment campaign had seen parents express concerns that their daughters would be harassed if they went to school.

The move may encourage more families to allow their daughters to go to school, the official said.

The order had first been circulated in Haripur district last week, before apparently being rolled out across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Monday.

But the edict immediately sparked anger online, with commentators saying it appeared to punish girls for sexual harassment, rather than putting the blame on the perpetrators.

They pointed out that women wearing an abaya also face abuse.

Amber Rahim Shamsi, a television anchor-woman, said the move put the onus of harassment on the victims. “As if women who wear the hijab and abaya don't get harassed. Well done Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Well done,” she said.

The move was quickly rescinded.

"Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government doesn’t believe in compulsion, and citizens are free to decide what’s best for them,” a statement from the PTI said late on Monday.

“The notification circulating regarding compulsion of abaya for the girls is hereby withdrawn with immediate effect."

Shireen Mazari, the federal minister for human rights in Mr Khan's government, said the reversal showed “sanity prevails”.

She said: “Why should girls be penalised for boys' misdemeanours? Punish them for targeting the girls.”

Mr Khan's government won power in July 2018 with bold promises to increase and improve education as part of a new welfare state to sure up the nation's struggling poor and middle classes.

As many as 22.5 million children are out of school. Girls are particularly affected.

According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, 32 per cent of primary school age girls are out of school, compared to a fifth of boys. Only one-in-eight girls are still in school by ninth grade.

The report said that in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 28 per cent of women, compared to 59 per cent of men, had completed primary school.

Poverty, insecurity, a lack of decent government-run schools and discrimination against girls all contributed to the poor enrolment figures, the report said.

Updated: September 17, 2019 05:57 PM

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