“He pointed the gun at me” – what Pakistani textbooks say

Saeed was fiercely proud of the private school education he was providing for his children. Whenever we’d ask anything about schooling he’d find a way to get the word “Oxford” into his reply. We didn’t really know what he was getting at until a daughter was called upon to show off her workbooks all of which displayed the Oxford University Press logo prominently.

Fiona catches up on her Pakistani history, as told through a sixth grade social studies book.
Fiona catches up on her Pakistani history, as told through a sixth grade social studies book.

The school books gave an interesting insight into what Pakistani kids learn (At least the privileged ones who have good quality texts, these were light years ahead of what we had at Mairposas). Social studies books, for example, placed Pakistan first in the Islamic world, and then in South Asia. But they were upfront about the historical reasons that Islam spread to the sub-continent and though they always marked Kashmir as part of Pakistan in their maps, they were honest enough to clearly label it “disputed territory”, something you’d never see on a Chinese map of Taiway, let alone Xinjiang.

My personal favourite was the English texts which added a distinctly Pakistani flavour to the lessons they taught. Working on “at” as a preposition they gave examples like “She is at the shop”, but more pertinently “He pointed the gun at me” and “The two countries have been at war for three years”.

The level of English being taught was impressive, especially considering its a third language for these kids. Nuzhat, six, knew all the letters of the alphabet and one morning set about learning to write Allah of her own accord. At first she wrote right to left, which is pretty excusable when you consider that’s the direction of written Urdu. Her older sisters set her straight. I wouldn’t say they were fluent in English, but I would say they were comfortable. Sosun, the oldest, liked reading aloud from Fiona’s kindle about Malala Yousafzai. Never having come across a full length book, she was confused that she’d only made 3% progress. We’re now on a mission to find age (and Muslim culture appropriate) books we can send to eager eleven and thirteen year old Pakistani girls. Suggestions much appreciated. We need to avoid sexual themes, but I’m hoping we don’t have to reach into the Famous Five archives to achieve that.

The kids had a broad knowledge and the  quizes they were supposed to be studying for had a wide range of pretty tough questions including, oddly for an eleven year old, the definition of Balance of Payments. But the world they inhabit is actually quite small. Because they come from a relatively privileged family they’ve visited what their father calls “Down Cities” or “Pakistan”, places like Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. But they are likely to spend their lives in the village where they were born. And though they knew to ask us whether we liked organges, bananas and mangoes, they’d never tasted them themselves.

There’s some religious instruction at school, but mostly that’s reserved for evening classes which all the kids in the village attend a few nights a week. And while many jobs are still strictly gendered there was no evidence we could see in Saeed’s family that his son was likely to get more education than his daughters. The girls play cricket too, they told us, in teams where they are mixed up with the boys. The boys aren’t their friends though. They have whatever cooties are in Urdu.

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