How Shahnaz became Mohammed Saleem so she could study
With support from her father, 12-year-old Shahnaz pretended to be a boy so she would not have to delay her schooling at a UNICEF-supported ALP center funded by JICA in Pakistan’s Balochistan
QUETTA, Balochistan – 29 September 2021: Sitting in her colourful classroom with other girls, 12-year-old Shahnaz smiles as a memory flashes through her mind.
Two years ago, she was sitting in a classroom full of boys, dressed in boys’ clothes. Being the only girl in a class for boys, she had to disguise her gender to study. No one knew the truth, except one person -- her teacher, who also happens to be her father.
“I just wanted to go to school. I overcame my fear of being the only girl sitting in the room and pretended to be a boy so I could study,” Shahnaz says.
Shahnaz, who belongs to a Baluch Marri tribe, lives in a community of 110 families in Hazarganji, on the outskirts of Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern province, Balochistan. A staggering 78 per cent of girls are out of school in the province.
Shahnaz’ father, Mira Khan, was the only person in their village who could read and write. He always encouraged her and her siblings, two sisters and two brothers, to study. He would teach them at home, but all Shahnaz wanted was to study in a proper school.
One day, she thought that her chance had come at last. Her father told her that a school was going to open near their village.
Balochistan’s Directorate of Education, with support of UNICEF, opened an Accelerated Learning Programme (ALP) center in the village to provide children age 9-13 who had never been to school, or dropped out, with the opportunity to study an accelerated curriculum in a flexible manner. The students are then given the opportunity to reintegrate in the formal education system later on.
Thanks to funds received from Japan’s International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Government of Balochistan and UNICEF have established 176 ALP centres in six districts of the province, offering 8,000 students an opportunity to learn.
“I just wanted to go to school. I overcame my fear of being the only girl sitting in the room and pretended to be a boy so I could study,”
Initially, the community in Shahnaz’s village demanded an ALP only for boys saying that in their culture, girls do not study. The ALP was established in a temporary one-room structure made of bricks and clay.
Sadly, Shahnaz’ excitement did not last for long as she found out that the center would enroll only boys. She was still resolute to go and study.
“When I learnt that the school would only be for boys, that’s when I decided to become a boy,” Shahnaz explains.
Equally resolute that she should learn, Mira Khan bought his daughter a boy’s outfit she could wear at school.
“Shahnaz was only nine years old but her desire to go to school was the strongest,” he narrates, “so I enrolled her as a boy under a name she had chosen herself -- Muhammad Saleem.”
This was made easier by the fact that Mira Khan himself was the teacher at the centre.
For two months, Shahnaz pretended to be Muhammad Saleem as she attended classes at the centre.
While the boys were learning at the ALP, Shahnaz and her father continued to convince the community that education was equally important for girls. They succeeded in their efforts and the community agreed that girls could also join the ALP.
The management of the centre immediately decided to start a separate section for girls.
In about three months, an old structure close to the ALP was rehabilitated and the centre was shifted to the new building and girls were also enrolled.
Today, 78 students are enrolled at ALP Kahan -- 48 boys who study in the morning and 30 girls who study in the afternoon, each group attending a four-hour session.
“The community’s enthusiasm to send their children to the ALP was overwhelming, especially the demand to accommodate girls,” says Naqeeb Khilji, Provincial Chief of Programme at the Directorate of Education.
The school closures which resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic have delayed the students’ schooling. Shahnaz and her classmates, who were supposed to have completed their courses at the ALP centre and join Grade 6 at the nearest public school by now, still have some months of schooling ahead of them.
The centre has recently reopened, much to the delight of its students, who can now resume their learning, and follow their dreams.
For many children in Balochistan, the ALP is their first chance to education, for some who dropped out of school earlier, it is an opportunity to rejoin and catch up. Children receiving education in ALP centres are not only moving towards a better future but are also inspiring those who are still out of school to avail the opportunity.