By Aslam Kakar
While the world was celebrating Valentine, a twelfth-grader teen of Balochitasn’s Killa Saifullah district, Saqiba Kakar, committed suicide because her college principal rejected her form to the annual examination board. In June last year, Saqiba and her friends had staged protests at the Quetta Press Club against the suspension of classes in the college. That incurred the wrath of principal Abida Ghous and the college administration. However, Saqiba and her friends had afterwards submitted written apologies. Not only that. Her entire family had apologized to the headmistress. And, some even say, though I am not sure, that the family had also sought the ‘forgiveness’ of area’s tribal political leadership. But, the principal, allegedly backed by the same leadership, in an adamant animosity to the teen, turned her down. And the ensuing despair and helplessness led Saqiba to take her own life last week. Compelling the teen and her family for apologies is the lowest bottom of wickedness and shamelessness a system and society can sink to. And, this can only happen in an insane and unjust corner of the world called Pakistan.
A tragedy of national importance and mourning, Saqiba’s sad and untimely demise is also a grim reminder of some critical governance and social and cultural issues and questions that I want to tackle in this article. The very first is the poor and broken education system. Pakistan spends the lowest share (2%) of its GDP on education. The Pakistan Economic Survey 2013-14 shows that the country’s literacy rate went down from 60% to 58%, while under the United Nation’s MDGs Pakistan was required to increase it to 88% by 2015. Most importantly, the country wide female literacy rate is 47%, and Balochistan’s is miserably the lowest at 25%. That is enough to get an idea how much education, and female literacy particularly, is our priority.
The fact that only 25% girls in Balochistan have access to schools tells a whole lot about issues they face in education. There are social, cultural, and religious barriers and gender taboos that girls have to break through to get to college and higher studies. Education is not a cake walk even for girls who come from the so-called educated households. While the trend may be changing, the speed and ratio at which it does is less than encouraging. Most importantly, amidst such despair, those who make it to college meet Saqiba’s fate at the hands of the likes of Abida. How miserable!
Coming back to why we lost Saqiba, I think both the system and culture failed the teen. There are almost no student health and counselling centers on campuses in the country. The assumption that one gets from it is that we either do not care about life or live in ‘utopia’ where we are perfectly insusceptible to stress, emotional breakdown, and sufferings of life. But, in reality, we come from a place where our women and children and youth suffer the most from poverty, terrorist violence, insecurity, gender bias and harassment, and future uncertainty. The government’s lack of attention and policies to develop infrastructure and resources to help students cope with stress and emotional conflicts failed Saqiba.
And that leads me to my next most important point why I think Saqiba’s death is also our collective social responsibility. One gets that the principal is the main culprit, and must be accounted for it. And so is the government, indirectly. But, what about her family, friends, and society. And all of us. What about their support when they knew that the teen was so keen on education? She was the highest scorer in the entire district in her tenth grade. They must have been aware of her trauma after the principal’s rejection. But, it does not seem like we have a sense of it because, as a society, we seriously lack empathy and soft skills when it comes to emotional issues. We have never tried to understand the worth and meaning of life. And we have never understanding ourselves and our mental life, and helping victims like Saqiba, made a priority. That kind of passive collective social behavior is at the core of unassailable stress and suicide among women.
Apparently, living in a communitarian social setting, it seems like we have no problems of stress because we consider ourselves as a strong collective one. But, unfortunately, it is a myth. Many, especially women, live alone and in despair amidst that myth. Depression among women, children, and even men is normal in our society. And, it is particularly true in Pashtun culture due to tribalism, lack of urbanization and development, patriarchy, conservative religious orthodoxy, and poverty and illiteracy. We do not open up because we have never learned how to. We would rather judge or mock those who do. We are afraid of vulnerability. Culturally, we perceive being vulnerable as being weak and shameful. And, we are ‘encouraged’ to lock and load to the point where unbearable stress attacks, and suicide ensues.
Victimized by our so-called culture of shame, we have lost the ability to cope with emotional life. Brené Brown, an American scholar and public speaker, in her book Daring Greatly says that vulnerability is not weakness. Rather, it is pure courage, emotional risk, and exposure that fuels our daily lives. Brown writes that shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, suicide, and bullying. She writes that people who do not experience shame and vulnerability have no capacity for connection and empathy. And, that is perhaps why we remorse Saqiba’s tragic departure today. May be, like many of us, she was not aware how to overcome stress and trauma. May be, she wanted to but had no one around who could understand and empathize with her deeply. I wish there were someone to tell Saqiba that it was not over for her till it was.
As humans, we all go through deeper inner conflicts and depression. And it is not unfair to say that it is normal. But, when ignored, the normal turns into abnormality. Therefore, one does not have to ignore the normal but find meaning in it, and help others in overcoming their emotional turmoil. We also need to understand that no matter how strong one is, we need each other’s support in overcoming our emotional breakdowns. It just requires a certain level of empathy and courage. I wish better sense prevails, both in government and society, so we do not loose more precious lives like Saqiba’s. May the teen’s soul rest in peace.