by Zofeen T. Ebrahim
Horrified, as Pakistan television channels inundate us with minute-by-minute news of the recovery of over two dozen girls from a one-bedroom house in Karachi, I felt a sense of relief two days later when it was reported that the girls were handed over to their parents.
On November 26, 2014 police raided a house in Liaquatabad, in the southern port city of Karachi, and recovered 26 minor girls, roughly ages 6 to 12. Later seven more girls were recovered from the same area and three more from another part of Karachi.
According to police, a majority of the girls belong to the picturesque Bajaur Agency, a valley surrounded by the towering snow-capped Himalayas.
Bajaur is one of seven semi-autonomous territories of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan’s northwest, bordering Afghanistan. According to their families, these girls had come to Karachi to study Qur’anic teachings and reside in Islamic religious schools, or madrassas.
While the 24-hour electronic media, with its bombardment of breaking news, has lost interest in these girls; it has, in its wake, left many unanswered questions. Foremost on my mind, and the minds of many others, is whether this is a case of child trafficking.
As I.A. Rehman, secretary general of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, tells me, "a trace of subtle trafficking cannot be ruled out."
At the same time, he says, there is a long tradition of poor people handing over their children to madrassas where they hope they will get "two square meals a day, clothes to wear, and above all safety under a benign roof."
"Whether the studies are good or not the boys grow up into sturdy young men and are good for hard jobs. They are no longer a burden on parents," says Rehman. But, he adds, he has not seen girls being "abandoned" in this manner.
Sher Zaman Khan's 10-year-old daughter, Naheeda, was one of the recovered children. A mason and father of four, Khan sent his daughter to Karachi two years ago when he learnt about a friend's daughter returning from the same madrassa after memorising the Quran.
"We had not visited her nor had she come since she left, but we were regularly in touch with her over the phone," he says, adding that his nephew lived in Karachi and took good care of his daughter.
The news that she had been recovered from a house came as a complete shock. "We were waiting anxiously for her to finish her course which she would have in the next six months had she stayed on," Khan tells me over the phone from Bajaur.
"I am not educated, but I want all my kids to study," he says. "I tried sending her to a government school but she would often play truant, so I thought sending her to a madrassa would work best."
Mohammad Saeed, a father of six and also from Bajaur, has been working in Karachi as a watchman for several years. He explains, "The sending of young boys and girls to Karachi from our area is not a new phenomenon; we are all aware of this and don't find it strange; I don't know why the media has created an issue out of a non-issue."
"The imam of the mosque of my village sent his own daughter here," adds Saeed, as if to give credence to the trend.
One of the reasons for sending the children to study as far off as Karachi, which is more than 1500 km (932 miles) from Bajaur, is that government schools in Bajaur are not considered safe. "We are always scared these schools would be bombed," says Saeed.
Samar Minallah is an Islamabad based anthropologist and a documentary filmmaker who lived in Bajaur from 1991 to 1993. Being a Pashtun herself, she is well versed with Pashtun culture and emphasizes the security situation has impacted the lives of girls and women directly. Sending girls to madrassas away from their home town has become "culturally acceptable" because it is imparting religious education.
"If there were safer all girls schools with female teachers available in Bajaur they would not opt for sending them so far away," Minallah says emphatically.
According to Iftikhar Firdous, a young journalist belonging to FATA and based in the city of Peshawar, "Conflict had changed the dynamics and demography of the region completely." He points out that in the last many years, scores of schools had been destroyed and female teachers attacked by militants. He adds that it is, "Little wonder then that both male and female teachers are hesitant to serve in the war-ravaged region."
With the radicalization over the years, madrassas are seen as a safe option says Minallah. "Why would anyone opt for a school when formal education is seen as a western agenda?” However, she laments that in many cases parents are completely blind to the "bigger risks" involved in sending their daughters away to madrassas.
The bigger risks, she explains, include being radicalised and used as a tool by militants. She recalls how the Taliban used women and won their trust in the Swat Valley before they brought untold misery on them.
And yet, I wonder why they do not send their children to the madrassas close to their homes. "There is a reason for that," points out Firdous. "Many locals look warily upon them given the radicalization that took place. They consider them dubious; and over time and through word of mouth they found they could trust madrassas in Karachi as a reliable and safer alternative to education."
While in favour of secular education to some extent, Saeed tells me that if he had female relatives from his side in Karachi, he would have put his daughter in a madrassa in Karachi versus the all-girls regular school. "The all-girls schools here have male staff as well, and I wouldn't like that."
For now Saeed has enrolled his 5-year-old daughter in a government all boy's school but does not let her go to school.
"My son, who is in grade 10 teaches her at home. When the time comes for her to sit for a board examination, the teacher will take it at home," he explains. "The closest girl’s school is about four hours away by motorised transport. Even if I had the means it would've been difficult to make the long journey for her every day."
Acknowledging that it is quite unusual for Pashtun parents to send their daughters to a far off place at such a young age, Bushra Gohar, a former legislator and member of the Awami National Party, tells me, "Some parents said they sent their daughters because of worsening security situation knowing they would be fed, have a place to stay, and taught the Holy Quran.
However, like Rehman, she too emphasizes that child trafficking cannot be ruled out entirely. "It is therefore important to thoroughly investigate the case and stringent action taken against all those involved if it is proved."
She further says child rights laws should be extended to FATA. "Access to free, compulsory and quality education should be ensured so that children don't have to leave their homes and live in abusive and often subhuman environments."
In the wake of the recent incident, the Bajaur administration has decided to register all madrassas in its area and to set up seminaries for girls in the region.
About the Author: For Pakistani journalist, Zofeen Ebrahim, the path to journalism was never a "carefully thought out" or a "planned" career choice. It was as if she was being led towards it. After graduating, and completing her master’s degree, she got married. "I had no clue what I wanted to do or even if I wanted a career." A small inconspicuous advert in an English daily changed all that for her. Seven years later she left the magazine, Women's Own, after serving as its editor and joined Pakistan's largest English daily, Dawn, and worked there for another seven years. Today, she freelances for several national and international media organisations and writes about issues that touch her heart. She has been commended nationally as well as internationally for her work on development issues.