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The World | COLUMN ONE

A Higher Class of Women

Elders in a Pakistani town told the founders of a school for girls that they were 'opening the gates of hell.' Graduates are now breadwinners.

October 08, 2002|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAND, Pakistan — When the Jalal family went door to door 20 years ago urging parents to let their daughters attend a new girls school, people in this desert outpost branded them heretics.

The town's elders, many of them illiterate, declared that the Jalals were "opening the gates of hell." Once girls started getting educated, one man charged, they'd be able to write letters to their boyfriends.

But a few dozen brave parents, particularly those working as servants, enrolled their girls anyway. And that has made all the difference in their lives.

A decade after the first class graduated, this isolated desert region near the Iranian border has been affected in ways both simple and profound.

The school, which now hums with the voices of nearly 1,000 girls, has brought jobs here. It has tilted the economic balance in favor of the graduates, who have emerged as their families' breadwinners and hold the best-paying jobs in town.

The school also has brought colorful clothing, confidence and even condoms here. Girls as young as 10 have learned to just say "no" if they don't like the men their parents have picked out for them to marry. Several have gone on to college, living in hostels a three-hour drive from home--independence inconceivable just a few years ago.

The classism and racism that still are powerful forces here are also beginning to erode. Darker-skinned servants' daughters--the descendants of African slaves--who never would have been chosen as brides by the town's landowners now dream of becoming doctors. One black student became a teacher and has built her family a house that sports a big new satellite dish.

These changes are no small feat in Pakistan, an impoverished, largely rural nation whose problems are compounded by the vast illiteracy that contributes to festering Islamic extremism. Two out of three girls nationwide still get no education at all. (One in three boys is uneducated.)

Tribal leaders still wield great clout, and family and clan continue to be the dominant influences. In this patriarchal society, young women typically are expected to tend house and raise hordes of children, sometimes living in compounds they share with their husbands' other wives.

Named after its founder, the Zobaida Jalal School is testament to the difference one woman with an education and a dream can make. And it illustrates the hurdles that still must be overcome so that everyone in this nation can learn to read.

The school's success prompted President Pervez Musharraf to name Jalal his education minister last year and has led Jalal to implement similar initiatives nationwide; President Bush cited the efforts of the "very brilliant" education minister and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to Pakistan's education efforts in a meeting with Musharraf in Washington last year. Jalal served until recently, when she resigned to run for a National Assembly seat against several men in Thursday's parliamentary elections.

Jalal herself is as unusual as her school's success: She didn't marry until last year, at 42, an age when most Pakistani women have grandchildren, some even great-grandchildren. She seems like a modern-day Western career woman and until recently commuted by plane from the capital, Islamabad, on weekends to see her husband in Quetta. Except that her husband also has another wife.

Wearing a headscarf, like most women in Pakistan, Jalal is confident and poised and speaks fluent English.

"We need to bring change gradually, to make people themselves accept it, not push it on them," she says. "Being economically independent has created much more respect for women. They now have power to make decisions--the power to make their own decisions."

Although revolutionary, the school hasn't been able to cure all her hometown's woes. Mand, a sleepy place that appears to have a few thousand people but actually is home to 35,000, still seems stuck in another century. Phones and computers are scarce. Much of the electricity comes from portable generators. Jobs are few. And girls still get married at what most people in the West would consider frighteningly young ages and have babies soon thereafter.

Still, the school is as much of an oasis here as the underground karez system that brings water from the mountains, allowing the trees to grow lush amid the desert and bear the world's largest crop of dates. Although she was the force behind the school, Jalal couldn't visit prospective students' families because of the purdah tradition, which prohibits contact between unmarried women and men outside their families.

Unlike her sisters, who married in their teens, Jalal turned down suitor after suitor picked by her father, demanding that any husband be sufficiently educated.

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