A battle for young souls from behind the veil

A battle for young souls from behind the veil

A battle for young souls from behind the veil




Posted on October 11, 2013 at 12:09 PM

(ABC News) --  Pakistan, home of Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban, is a country of nearly 200 million people defined by infinite complications.

One reflection of that complexity is the ideology of two veiled women who at first glance seem nearly identical. But their differences represent the war for the soul of Pakistan.

One of these women, Umm-e-Hassan, runs a religious school associated with Pakistan's controversial Red Mosque. At this school, Malala is considered a wayward child at best, and an evil conspirator at worst.

Don't miss ABC's Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with Malala Yousafzai TODAY on "World News with Diane Sawyer" at 6:30 p.m. ET and on "20/20's" primetime special "Unbreakable," at 10 p.m. ET

Umm-e-Hassan: the Radical Red Mosque

Umm-e-Hassan's religious school or madrasa is called Jamia Hafsa and it has been associated with radical Islamic teachings and Taliban ideology. The Pakistani Army stormed the madrasa in 2007 in a failed attempt to shut it down after the students began patrolling the streets of Islamabad to enforce their strict ideology of Sharia.

They were accused of kidnapping women, harassing civilians and threatening suicide bombings if the government used force against them. The Army also attacked the Red Mosque next door, run by Umm-e-Hassan's husband. The death toll has been disputed but government officials said that more than a 100 people died in the ensuing eight-day siege.

Today, the madrasa has been rebuilt at a new location, but it is still teeming with young girls, many with books and bags. Some are just a year old while others are teenagers like Malala. When the school bell rings in the morning, the girls scurry into the dozens of classrooms in the concrete complex.

Jamia Hafsa's students have often abandoned by their families, she said. Some are here because fathers don't want daughters in a society that favors sons. Others have families that are too poor to care for them, preferring to send them to a place where they can get food and what they believe to be some sort of education.

The madrasa is the only real home for most of the women and children here. Many sleep in their classrooms using the floor mats as beds.

These girls are looked after by several grown women who are teachers, many of whom were themselves students in the madrasa and are now helping teach a new generation of devotees. Only women are allowed to enter the black gates of the madrasa, which according to Umm-e-Hassan has 3,000 students.

Women in the madrasa do not allow men who are strangers to see them without a full burka, also known as a niqab. Umm-e-Hassan also covers herself in a black robe from head to toe when in the company of men or on camera. Only her eyes are visible through a small slit in her head covering.

'There Is Some Problem with This Child'

At first Umm-e-Hassan told ABC News that she does not want to talk about Malala, then almost immediately said: "There is some problem with this child. She was not given the proper education."

She said she believes that because Malala received a secular education -- rather than an appropriate Islamic education -- she was brainwashed. She also blames Malala's father, Ziauddin, saying that he is likely involved in some sort of conspiracy.

If Malala had been educated properly, Umm-e-Hassan said, "she would never have said that Obama is her ideal," referring to an interview Malala did before she was shot.

When the girls at first come to her madrasa, Umm-e-Hassan said many of them also have a lot of questions, but they patiently talk with the young women so they are put on the right path to Islam, she said.

 'I Am Proud of the Taliban'

Umm-e-Hassan dismisses Malala's shooting by saying, "we think this was all a drama to malign Islam." Some of the teachers watching nod in approval.

She adds, "Such conspiracies never work, they just make us stronger."

Umm-e-Hassan insists she has no direct contact with the Taliban, but she takes time to praise them. "The Taliban are doing the right thing, none of their demands are wrong."

"I am proud of the Taliban," she said, because "they have brought America and its allies to their knees."

To her, Malala is co-conspirator with America against Islam.

Chand Bibi: A School With No Roof

Less than ten miles from Jamia Hafsa is an even more decrepit and underfunded school -- the only school in a slum with hundreds of children.

The school has no roof, a few books, dozens of students and one teacher named Chand Bibi. Like Umm-e-Hassan, Chand Bibi is dressed in a black robe that cover her from head to toe. Only her eyes are visible.

But for Chand Bibi, Malala is a hero, a symbol of hope for women in a culture that wants to oppress them.

"Malala Yousafzai is a shining light for education, and I especially give credit to her parents who educated her," she said.

"The men in our culture, they don't want young girls to be educated," she added. "Maybe men are worried that women will stand side by side with them and raise their voices and ask for their rights."

Chand Bibi comes from the same part of Pakistan as Malala Yousafzai, the Swat Valley. Like Malala, she too fought for education, attending school and taking exams in secret so that her family could not stop her. Now she has devoted her life to children who would otherwise have no access to even the sort of bare bones classroom she can offer.

Chand Bibi refutes the notion that Malala's story was all a "drama." She said many people have similar allegations against her, but those are all untrue as well.

 A Passion for Education

She said she wears her veil because it's just something she has done since she was a child.

"If you have a passion for education you can be educated whether behind a veil or not," she said.

She refused to discuss the Taliban, implying that she fears for her safety, but insisted, "education is possible in all sorts of circumstances"

But Chand Bibi's is a behemoth task. The children in her school are mostly refugees from neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal territories, both areas that have been in a state of war for decades. Their parents abandon the villages they call home, preferring urban slums instead where they can eke out a meager living in the shadows of Pakistan's cities. Chand Bibi's children live a stark reality of limited resources, rampant corruption and war.

But Chand Bibi is determined. She has plans to build a small room with a roof where the children can enjoy some shelter from the rain. She said she hopes she will be able to hire a more skilled teacher who can better help the children. She thinks even the little difference she makes in children's lives is worth something.

The Fight for Pakistan's Soul

Here in Pakistan these two very different schools help fill the void provided by Pakistan's nearly non-existent public school system. The schools and their two strong women leaders, Umm-e-Hassan and Chand Bibi, are rivals as they each try to win the souls of the millions of Pakistani school-aged children. Their dichotomy is oddly appropriate in a country that is after all the birthplace and home of both Malala Yousafzai and the Taliban.

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