Book Excerpt: Do We Not Bleed: Reflections of a 21st Century Pakistani by Mehr Tarar

Do we not bleed


The Story of Shazia Mustaq

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, education in Pakistan faces a catastrophe of unparalleled proportions. According to a 2015 UNESCO report, Pakistan has nearly 5.5 million children who are out of school, the second highest number in the world after Nigeria. Pakistan also has the highest number of illiterate adults in the world, after India and China.

According to the Pakistan Education Statistics Report, 2013–2014, the total number of out-of-school children at primary level in the country has dropped from 6.7 million in 2012–2013 to 6.2 million.

An October 2014 report by Alif Alaan, a campaign to end Pakistan’s education emergency pointed that there are 25 million boys and girls out of school—that’s nearly half of all children in the country. In relative terms, most out-of-school children are in Balochistan. More than half of the country’s out-of-school children live in Punjab. Across the country, it was harder for girls to go to school. Girls made up more than half of all out-of-school children. A majority of the parents of girls did not allow them to study, while boys were mostly unwilling to go to school. Older children are more likely to be out of school. Around 70 per cent of out-of-school children have never been to one before. Girls mostly drop out of school to help with household work. Children from poor families are far more likely to be out of school. The education system is unable to retain enrolled students

Said Shazia Mustaq, ‘My siblings didn’t get a chance to study, and that caused me immense pain. I think that is what got me thinking about education. Sometimes, I wish there was some magic wand that all illiterate people, out-of-school children become educated. I wish it for the whole world, and especially for Pakistan. Bas paadh jaiyan sab. Because of lack of education, Pakistan, my homeland, has divided into all these classes.’

As I drove into Yahounabad, a locality on Ferozepur Road, in Lahore, it was like being in one of those small towns that used to barely register in my mind en route to my village. Overcrowded, narrow-laned, jammed with bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, the occasional car, pick-up trucks and pedestrians in unhurried chaos. Honking constantly—no horn-no driving in this part of the world—accompanied by my niece Areeba, a twenty-year-old sociology student, I drove through streets that were so similar that getting lost would be easy.

One place that stood out in that nondescript locality was a white-painted, elegantly simple church. This is the first sign that announces to one that this is a Christian-populated part of the city of Lahore. I was there to meet a woman whose life was one of those stories that evoked a feeling of awakening in one’s comatose faith. The story of Shazia Mushtaq is of a woman who devoted her life to educating those who form a part of that enormous bulk of children and teenagers for whom going to school is a dream that, despite being accessible, never comes true.

Potholed, barely wide enough for a tiny vehicle to pass, huge, round manholes accentuated the unevenness of the hard-earth lane. Nothing seems to have changed for those who belong to that group of the faceless milieu in all developing countries whose lives become indistinguishable from the congested houses they inhabit, the broken—like most of their dreams—streets they trudge on, the pile of garbage they pass by every day. The mechanical lives of those who give their all to the work they do, building communities, cities and countries, without ever expecting any real change in their dreary existence. The aam aadmi. The ordinary citizen whose singular significance to those in power is his identity as a voter every five years. Individually, he does not count. Collectively, along with all others like him, he is the machine that votes for the ones seeking power, those starched-clothed big-promise makers whom he only sees during the election campaign days, or when there is a party rally, the attendance in which is bought with more promises, and maybe a samosa or two and a fifteen-rupee pack of juice.

Shazia was standing in front of her house on the street that she had given me last-minute directions to. As I hugged her, introducing her to Areeba, her smile was bright, her cheerful voice tinkling with her easy laughter, as she introduced us to a dignified gentleman standing next to her. ‘This is Reverend John Joseph Edwards, and I wanted him to meet you.’ The Sri Lankan priest, who has been in Pakistan since 1985, thinks of Pakistan as his second home, being one of those countless missionaries in Lahore, in Pakistan, in the subcontinent, who have devoted their lives to bringing solace to the lives of those who go unnoticed by the ones they elect to power.

While we talked about how it took me weeks to finally reach her for the interview I wished to do as soon as I learned about her work, I could not help but comment on the empty piece of land facing her house. The entire plot was covered with garbage. In the absence of dumpsters in the low-income locality, the empty lot, like many others all over the place, was used as a garbage-disposal ground for the entire neighbourhood. She sighed. The sigh of acceptance for what one does not have the power to change.

Shazia teaches children in a makeshift school in her house. As we enter her three-roomed house, the first group of students, ranging from the very young to young adults, doing their mathematics exercises in the courtyard, stand up and greet Shazia in unison, ‘Good morning, Sister,’ evoking fond memories of the convent school I attended for the first sixteen years of my life. Another group is seated in the room adjacent to the courtyard. The thing that strikes one immediately is the decorum characteristic of a proper school being observed by an assorted group of students of varying ages in this makeshift school. There’s no out-of-turn speaking; there’s no loud talking unrelated to the classroom; there’s no running around. Dressed in their everyday clothes, all of them, girls and boys, with their female and male teachers, are focused on the ongoing activity, and that is what becomes most noticeable about them this cold but clear February morning. Shazia is their ‘Sister’ who provides them with education free of cost. That is what I endeavour at the most when I started talking to this remarkable woman. Without seeking monetary benefit from her endeavour, her goal is simple: Shazia wishes to see every child in Pakistan gain an education.

A huge, apparently impossible, dream. Shazia is aware of that. But that is not going to deter her from fulfilling a goal she has set for herself. There may be severe limitations to what her endeavours manage to achieve on a day-to-day basis, but that appears to have no effect whatsoever on her determination to impart knowledge to children. These are children who either do not have the opportunity to attend school for one reason or the other—financial constraints, parents’ lack of interest in education, etc.—or drop out of school because of their inability to cope with a regimented system of education in shoddily run state-owned schools where the emphasis is on following a system that does not pay much attention to the basic functions of education: imparting knowledge in an enlightened, goal-oriented and all-encompassing manner.

A great deal of the motivation behind Shazia’s clear-cut plan of educating out-of-school children comes from myriad reasons that shaped her personality into the person she is today. Shazia has seen life in its varied shades of grey, black and bleak; however, none of that is discernible when one sits across her, watching her attractive face break into very frequent smiles, her words punctuated by her unaffected laughter. There is an almost tangible aura of positivity and strength about this incredible woman who exudes warmth as effortlessly as a toddler playing with his favourite toy. The trials of her life have strengthened her core, and there is no trace of negativity in her voice as she looks back at her life, one that was full of heartache, heartbreak and broken ties. It started with her father.


About the book

Do We Not Bleed? Reflections of a 21st-Century Pakistani is a passionate, illuminating book about contemporary Pakistan. Comprising original profiles of diverse Pakistanis—some of whom are internationally feted and many others who are relatively unknown—as well as essays that examine the major fault lines in Pakistani society, the book offers the reader an insider’s perspective on the state of affairs in the country today.

The book is divided into five thematic sections, each corresponding to a subject that the author feels strongly about…. Mehr Tarar’s first book is a remarkably honest account of her beloved country.

About the author

MEHR TARAR, a freelance columnist, is the former op-ed editor of Daily Times, a leading English daily. Tarar has one son, Musa, eighteen, whom she considers her inspiration for everything she does. She lives in Lahore.