The ‘halal’ curriculum – Murtaza Haider



There is no limit to folly when ideology takes over.

Radicalised middle-aged men will again determine the curriculum of primary schools in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

These men are not informed by training in early childhood education or children psychology, but instead are motivated by their rural-religious beliefs, which they would like to impose on the entire society.

The Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in KP has prevailed over the provincial government to alter the primary school curriculum.

The JI finds pictures of minor girls without headscarves objectionable.

It is offended by the greeting, “Good morning.” It wants Assalam-o-Alaikum instead.

Furthermore, the JI wants the primary school curriculum to mention religious and political personalities that the Jamaat admires. Obviously, Baacha Khan does not make the cut.

The fact that the PTI’s government willingly yielded to the Jamaat’s demand is troubling.

Instead of asking the Jamaat and others to send their primary education experts for a meaningful dialogue on how best to tailor the curriculum, the middle-aged men from Jamaat and the PTI agreed on changing the curriculum to induct misogynist doctrines in the curriculum for young children.

Learning outcomes in Pakistan have steadily deteriorated in public schools since General Zia’s radical transformation of the curriculum that began in the late 70s. He accomplished this task by staffing the textbook boards with religious zealots.

A disproportionately large number of members of textbook boards were either JI members or its sympathisers, who altered a curriculum that helped radicalise the society in Pakistan. Long after General Zia’s demise, the same forces are busy radicalising the future generations of Pakistan.

Already, a split has occurred in Pakistan. The affluent households send their children to private schools, which are not bound by the dictates of the textbook boards. Students attending private schools outperform those from public schools in securing admissions to professional institutions and universities. The gulf widens even further in the labour markets where those who attended private schools report significantly higher earnings than those who attended public schools.

The public school curriculum and pedagogy is partly to blame for the poor long-term outcomes for alums of public schools.

The KP textbook board website is currently offline. So is the curriculum. -Screengrab

The Jamaat has always subscribed to a doctored version of the region’s history and an imagined religious past that hardly resembled reality. The Jamaat’s leadership in the past few decades have largely comprised of those who grew up in rural or small-town environments. This further radicalised the Jamaat’s outlook on socio-political matters as the leadership inculcated values that were out-of-step with the rapidly urbanising Pakistan.

The Jamaat has always believed in expanding its political base by altering the curriculum. It is not motivated by improving pedagogy or the learning outcomes for the five-to-10 year old children, which would require experts in early childhood education that the Jamaat has either failed to produce or attract to its fold.

The primary school curriculum in Pakistan has to be designed for the learning needs and capacities of children as young as five.

One must ask why very young kids need to be taught about political or religious leaders.

Already, Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s photograph is on bills and billboards. These children are too young to understand what Jinnah stood for. Furthermore, the Jamaat is certainly not interested in advising the children that Jinnah favoured a secular Pakistan or that he envisioned friendly relations with India with post-partition plans to spend considerable time at his residence in Bombay.

The primary school children are too young to understand the nuances of the partition, and what Jinnah had hoped to accomplish with the new State. However, if the Jamaat were to have its way, it would hide such ‘inconvenient’ facts from students and scholars at any age.

The Jamaat’s insistence on values that it holds dear and its attempts to impose those on others should be resisted.

The Pakistan I grew up in did not force five-year-old girls to wear headscarves. This deliberate objectifying of very young girls is not healthy and robs them of their innocence at a very young age. Even more importantly, these decisions are best left to parents. The State should not be in the business of enforcing headscarves or skullcaps.

The Jamaat confuses culture with religion and tries to enforce its ignorance on the rest.

Take its insistence on having the greeting ‘Good morning’ removed and replaced with Assalam-o-Alaikum. If Pakistanis were Arabs, and spoke Arabic, this suggestion would have some merit. But that is not the case.

In KP, people greet in Pushto, not in Urdu or Arabic. What happened to ‘starhay mashey, khwar mashey’ or ‘pakher raghley’? Should we give up our rich cultural heritage because it does not fit the curriculum designs of the Jamaat?

For those who have visited Arab states in North Africa know very well that the Arabs do not necessarily greet with Assalam-o-Alaikum. Depending upon where you are in Morocco, Algiers, Egypt, Libya or Lebanon, the greetings differ. However, that does not matter to the Jamaat, which is more concerned with raising its future voters by doctoring the primary curriculum.

The primary school curriculum in Pakistan definitely needs improvements. There is a need for more civic education in the curriculum. Teaching children not to litter on streets, to wait at the intersection for their turn, and to keep the neighbourhood clean are the values that young children need to learn.

Their young minds can appreciate contemporary heroes like Malala Yusufzai and Siffat Ghayoor. They need not to be taught maps of the entire country, but of their cities. It is not the Indian-administered Kashmir that the children need to learn about, but Gor Gathri and Masjid Mahabat Khan in Peshawar. The children should be taught the preventive measures against hepatitis rather than the emblem on ambulances.

Feeding lies to children about an imagined past or a utopian future will not do well.

The Jamaat is, and has always been, out-of-step with the rest of the nation. Its sustained failure at the ballot box over the past several decades speaks volumes of the peoples’ indifference to the values it holds dear.

The Jamaat knows that changing the curriculum today will give it a better shot at the ballot box in the future.

This should be resisted by the progressive forces in KP.