Richard Smith: The power of women in Pakistan

Richard SmithI’ve been in Pakistan teaching around 30 young women on the day that the Taliban has bombed a girls’ school in north west Pakistan killing three girls and injuring another 62. For the Taliban it’s a crime to educate women. For me the women I taught were an inspiration.

The conventional view of women in Pakistan is that they are horribly oppressed, and of course many are. Some 80% are illiterate. Many after they are 8 years old are not allowed to mix with men apart from their immediate family. Most of those who are married can do nothing without the consent of their husband, including, as one woman in my class explained, go to hospital to give birth when in labour. None, even those who are the most liberal and educated, can wear a skirt.

All of the women in my class were wearing traditional clothes, and many had their heads covered. But, otherwise, there was almost no difference from teaching a class in London or San Francisco. We joked and laughed and debated and worked hard. One thing that was different—and surprising—was that the class did include some men, but the women did 99% of the talking; and at one point one woman asked a man in the front row to be more constructive in his comments. The women were also unusually clever, which is explained by us being in the Aga Khan University in Karachi where they have more than 20 applications for every place and accept people purely on merit.

The women were hungry to learn, seizing on every one of the rather paltry scraps I had to offer, but they taught me more than I taught them. With almost every interchange I learnt more about this chaotic but interesting country where “everything is possible,” both the wonderful and the dreadful.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the energy of the women and their intellectual dominance of the men because I once heard Benazir Bhutto speak. She was a very clever, brave, and charismatic woman, and Pakistan is one of the still few countries that has had a women leader—along, of course, with most of the other countries of South Asia.

It was when I got back to the hotel, still tingling with the excitement of teaching such a lively class, that I heard about the bombing of the girls’ school. I can’t begin to imagine what view of the world you’d have to have to want to murder women seeking education. (Nor can I imagine a people like the Taliban who regard all music as an abomination.) But perhaps I need to work harder on my imagination: after all, in the 19th century novels I love the women don’t go to school or university, but, particularly in Trollope’s novels, the women are much smarter than the men.

I long ago learnt that men, including me, never quite grow up, whereas women do. Roll on the time when women run the world.

Richard Smith is a former BMJ editor.