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PIPS Consultation on “Promoting Diversity, and Inclusion through Education”

Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) organized a two-day consultation on “Promoting Diversity, and Inclusion through Education” on 1st and 2nd December, 2022 at the Shaykh Zayed Islamic Centre in University of Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Politicians, academics, students, religious scholars, rights activists, journalists, lawyers, provincial government officials, and representatives of youth, and civil society participated in the event.

Experts at the consultation emphasized the need to introduce subjects of ethics and character-building in the curriculum to promote diversity, and inclusion among youth through education.

They underlined that the policymakers were not serious about reforming the education system despite the fact that the present one promoted tendencies of religious, ethnic, sectarian, and gender intolerance among youth.  They also said that youth had indulged themselves in the misuse of social media platforms – a practice which is undermining their energies and abilities.

The panelists called for enhancing skill development of youth by giving technical education the top priority in the present education system. They also suggested to the policymakers that teacher training should be the main focus of any education policy.

The consultation consisted of three panel discussions. The objective of the first session on “Promoting Diversity, and Inclusion through Education” was to identify problems in the curriculum and textbooks that contribute to faith-based exclusion, and religious radicalism in Pakistan. It was also aimed at proposing policy options for making the education system and curriculum inclusive.

The second session on “Critical Role of Policymakers, and Legislators in Youth Development” deliberated how can policymakers, and legislators play greater roles for youth development, and welfare, and what specific roles can these crucial actors play in promoting social cohesion and religious harmony among youth?

The third and last session on “Curbing Social Intolerance among Youth” was designed to know how to curb religious, cultural, and gender intolerance among youth? The panelists were asked to give their assessment on the role of youth influencers such as media, and youth advocacy groups, and civil society in mitigating extremist leanings among youth. They also talked about whether the private media industry is giving due space to youth development programmes?

Session I: Promoting Diversity, and Inclusion through Education

Manager Programmes PIPS Ahmed Ali moderated the session. At the outset, he said that a debate was underway for the last many years that educational curriculum and textbooks had failed in reforming society and ending tendencies of extremism in it. He said that intelligentsia and policymakers were aware about the issue but the problem still existed. He asked the discussants to point out what were hurdles in addressing the issue?

Dr Aamer Raza, an assistant professor of the Department of Political Science at the University of Peshawar, said that the issue was linked with the sense of insecurity. He said that even in the beginning since the country came into being, the leadership had in mind that diversity would be dangerous for Pakistan and they wanted to decrease the influence of nationalist and secular forces in the society. “Thus, the education system was designed in such a way that diversity should be discouraged only to create ‘uniform’ citizens that don’t not recognize ideological, ethnic, national and linguistic diversities.” He underscored that decision-makers still did not agree to abandon such thoughts. He added that they were not ready to disturb ideological uniformity and faith-based hierarchies.

Tehmina Jan who works for ZamungKor, a non-government organization which provides education facilities to destitute children, viewed that diversity was necessary for the existence of human beings. “The importance of diversity cannot be ignored in the lives of civilized human beings,” she said, and called for tolerating each other while keeping intact individual identities.

Mahvesh Ali Khan, founder and CEO of Ran’aa Child Welfare Foundation, said that there was either no political will among policymakers or they were helpless to bring necessary changes in the education sector. She questioned who were the forces that oppose the change and what was the agenda behind it? She argued that civil society was contributing at its level but impact would only come as a result of effective policymaking.

Dr Syed Irfan Ashraf of the Department of Journalism at University of Peshawar said that they were not understanding the ‘slogan of change’ and there was even no discussion about bringing ‘organic change’ in the society. He said that political structures and different hierarchies in the country were not capable enough to understand or accept the idea of change and cater to the aspirations of youth. “We need to understand the parameters of change.” He stressed that the role of teacher was central in education and change.

Dr Minhas Majeed Khan Marwat, an assistant professor at the Department of International Relations in University of Peshawar, insisted that they first should define what kind of changes they wanted to bring to decrease extremism or extreme thoughts or narratives. She questioned whether they wanted to bring change in the content of syllabus, or in its entire structure or in strategies they adopt?

Dr Marwat said that elite and policymakers were the ones who could bring reformation or change in the system and added that this has also to be seen whether both are ready for this? She said that self-censorship imposed by the teacher in the present atmosphere of fear was a major hurdle in reforming the society. She said that the quota system in education and other sectors negated the idea of diversity.

Director Academics Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Education Foundation Shahab Saqib viewed that the existing curriculum did not fulfill basic needs of the society. “Technical education is on the low priority of the present system,” he said, adding that industry should be connected with the education sector. He underlined that the subject of character-building in the curriculum was missing.

Director Shaykh Zayed Islamic Centre Professor Dr Rashid Ahmad remarked that they would have to review certain content present in the curriculum. He noted that faith-based subjects in the curriculum of seminaries could not be excluded but all schools of Islamic thought should be at liberty to explain and interpret issues according to their own choice. He said that the subject of ethics should be promoted in the curriculum and it must be connected with the supremacy of rule of law. “The entire curriculum should be rephrased if we cannot change it totally.”

Dr Raza Ullah, an assistant professor at Islamia College University in Peshawar, remarked that the problem in Pakistan was political in nature and added that different governments had been promoting different policies in the education sector and narratives for youth. He said that the state should protect different diversities present in the society and fulfill its basic responsibility of protection of person and property.

Professor Dr Syed Naeem, Chairman of Department of Islamic Studies at University of Agriculture in Peshawar, urged for training the teachers saying they play an important role in character-building of students. He said that students of seminaries could prove themselves good citizens but they needed to bring in the mainstream.

Session II: Critical Role of Policymakers, and Legislators in Youth Development”

Director PIPS Muhammad Amir Rana moderating the session said that the purpose of the discussion was to know how the legislative process at provincial level worked on the education system and how did seriously the provincial governments and political parties take it?  He said that the purpose of discussion is to get input from experts and prepare policy options in the form of a report to be shared with the government, relevant ministries and other stakeholders including civil society, and media. The exercise would help to review and reform the curriculum by removing basic flaws in it, he added.

Central Joint Secretary Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) Hashim Raza deplored that the Pakistani youth had been taught distorted history. “We should be realistic about how to move forward.” He further said that the state should ensure economic, political, social, cultural, and civil rights to the citizens. He also called for reviewing the present curriculum and added that subjects of ethics should be included in it.

Shakil Waheedullah Khan, another leader of QWP, underscored that they wanted to see the youth as civilized, skilled and educated people of the society. He said that the subject of ethics should be introduced in the curriculum besides promoting technical education. He also stressed the need to revive political activities for students on campuses.

Information Secretary Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) for KP Haji Jalil Jan said that emphasis in the curriculum should be on teaching ethical values to youth. “We should have such a curriculum which is acceptable to all.” He said that social media was being misused, especially by youth, which has damaged the moral and ethical values of the society.

Professor Dr Muhammad Farooq of the Shaykh Zayed Islamic Centre remarked that it was not possible to provide quality of education at higher studies level because of the low quality basic schooling. He opposed the idea of revival of student unions in universities and colleges saying that political activities at campuses should only be restored after basic education at school level is improved.

Session III: “Curbing Social Intolerance among Youth”

Manager Programmes PIPS Ahmed Ali while moderating the session said that the consultation was part of PIPS’ engagements with the youth that had been continuing for the last two years on the themes of interfaith harmony and social cohesion. He said that the media also had a role in stereotyping specific cultures, and ethnicities and the purpose of the discussion was to see the role of media in youth development.

Islam Gul Afridi, senior broadcast journalist and freelance contributor for BBC Urdu, talked about the role of media in shaping up minds of youth, and said that Pakistani media was not sensitive enough to cover issues of women, minorities and different ethnicities. “There is a lack of professionalism in the media, though the situation has improved but a lot of work still has to be done.” He underlined that the media should cover issues without any biases of religion, colour, race, and ethnicity.

Senior journalist Rifatullah Orakzai quoting a research report said that the mainstream media’s 90 per cent space was only available for politics while issues of health, education, and minorities etc. were on its low priority. He underscored there were no open forums available for youth where they can talk freely. He added that social media has aggravated the situation more. He suggested reviving the student union to improve the situation.

Abdul Qayyum Afridi, a freelance journalist with focus on reporting on tribal areas, said that there were neither any specific editorial guidelines about youth coverage in the mainstream media nor any special programmes designed for them to highlight their problems and successes. He said that Pakistani media was corporate and its business model totally focused on minting more and more money.

Dr Babar Shah, Director Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Peshawar, said a four-year undergraduate BS programme was launched in Pakistan without going into its pros and cons and strengths and weaknesses. He said that the old system of two-year bachelor and masters programmes each used to match with their social and economic conditions. He questioned if there was rationale behind the decision, and if there was some serious thinking at the government level for creating employment opportunities for youth? He said in the same breath that the answer was no. “We have to find the root cause of the problems,” he said, adding that there was persistent lack of will, vision and consistency from the political leadership in this connection.

Shazia Hina, women rights activist and Director Program at Peshawar-based non-profit organization – Khwendo Kor, spoke on the role of civil society in decreasing radical tendencies among young. She called for creating employment opportunities belonging to youth of less privileged areas, especially tribal districts of erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). “The youth should be involved in different skill development programmes to engage them in the local market of their respective areas.”

Hayat Roghani, the chief of Mafkoora Research and Development Center, highlighted the role of creative and performing arts to improve the present atmosphere of intolerance in the society. He said that theatre, cinema, art and fine art had a crucial role in decreasing growing extremism in the society, especially among youth. He deplored that the youth have disconnected themselves with these things and now cinema and theatre have become rare commodities. “We would have to move forward and take initiatives, if we don’t do this, then our next generations would remain as insecure as we are today.”