Gul-e-Khandana, 44, a school teacher in Pakistan’s northwestern region, has become an icon of education who defied the powerful Taliban during the peak of the insurgency in 2007 to 2009.
Living in the Swat valley, she continued to teach local girls until the launch of a military operation that forced the local inhabitants to evacuate. As a result of the operation, which continued for almost two months, Pakistani troops drove the militants out from Swat and people returned to their homes. After returning to her home, she is not only running a girls’ primary school but also supervising a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) working for the rights of destitute women in the local area.
During the period of violence, the Taliban destroyed more than 400 schools in Swat valley, the homeland of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner. While Malala has played a great role in working for education for girls in the Swat valley, history should also remember women like Khandana, who have risked their lives to protect educational institutions in the region.
“It was a very difficult time of our life,” Khandana. There were always fear of blasts and suicide attacks, with mortar shells raining down from unknown locations, and if children were injured, it was difficult to take them to hospitals due to blocked roads, she said. “When the Taliban banned girls education it was really shocking for me,” said Khandana. “Who ever tried to defy their orders was brutally punished. They were against education.”
“It was a terrible and painful period for women who were restricted to their bound-walls. With the destruction of girls’ schools they almost lost their hopes to get an education,” said Khandana.
“Not only the militants but even some local people were also showing no respect and were labeling us as ‘infidel,’" she said.
“In the night I heard a bang. Later we discovered that a girl‘s middle school in my surrounding area was destroyed,” said Khandana.
“In the morning I went to my school. I saw dozens of militants, armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket propelled grenades disembark from their trucks. They were talking about burning down the school… I came out and challenged them that no one can harm the school even if I had to sacrifice my life for its protection.”
“I argued with them for hours and eventually made them go away. But before leaving they warned that they will return and will not only destroy the school but will also slit my throat.”
“Being a Muslim, I have a firm belief that everyone will die one day and only Allah can take one’s life not the human being… one shouldn’t be scared at this belief,” said Khandana.
“They slaughtered many people. If we study our religion, there is no mention of slaughtering people or waging terrorism,” she said. “They were actually spreading their agenda of violence wrapped in the cover of Shariah [Islamic law].”
In the beginning of 2009, there was fierce fighting between the militants and Pakistan army. The bullets were piercing through the bodies of innocent civilians. All means of communication were blocked. Militants took over Khandana’s village of Sijban-Matta, and took her along with others as prisoners.
“As revenge to what I had done with them to save my school they made me to cook food for them… they were too many in numbers and I was to cook curry and make ‘roti’ (traditional bread) day and night. Those were the darkest times of my life. No respect. No honor. No hope,” she recalled.
“They were the monsters who considered themselves to be the kings of the land and for us there was no other option but to obey their commands,” she said.
“The militants were sitting outside our homes and were busy preparing to launch attacks on the army. They were too many and everywhere—houses, fields, orchards and mountains,” she said.
“There was fear and panic in the whole valley as it was the militants, and not the government of Pakistan, who were deciding the fate of local people,” said Khandana.
Soon the battle entered a decisive phase and the local population was told to vacate their homes. Instead of picking up the clothes of her children, Khandana went to school and bagged all the student’s records.
“The records were much more important than anything. It was the future of girls in that area and that’s why I kept it with myself,” said Khandana.
Haroor ur Rasheed, Khandana’s husband, called his wife “a very brave lady. Braver than me.”
“Everyone in our family differ with her and admonish her for continuing her job, but she didn’t listen to anyone as she has a passion for the service of humanity,” he said.
“I am with her and our mission is to help the people courageously without any fear. Sometime during the training sessions, some girls would say: ‘You are our parents.’ Such comments and sentiments always make my cheeks wet with tears of gratitude and happiness rolling down from my eyes and seep into my beard,” said Rasheed.
Speaking of the Taliban insurgency, Iffit Nasir, a senior education official in Swat said: “Militants first started targeting a girl’s school, but later on in order to create more panic and to intensify the impact; they started blowing up boys schools as well. The militants threatened us, warning us not to come to school because they were using explosives to blow up the buildings.”
“The good thing that I noted was that there were least a 29 percent rise in the enrollment of girls in Swat schools after they returned to the valley from the internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps where they were compelled to live while the military operation was going on,” added Nasir.
“Our area is facing poverty and that is increasing ignorance in the region. Our sisters are sitting idle at homes. That’s why I thought to sacrifice my life for my sisters’ to improve their lives,” said Khandana.
Apart from the job of school teacher, Khandana is also running an NGO entitled Women Welfare & Development Organization. So far she has empowered and skilled more than 20,000 women who are now running their families.
Khandana recalled a day when a widow and mother of four came to her and asked for help.
“I bought a sewing machine and taught her the techniques of sewing and that skill empowered her. She is now giving her kids an education and is living a happy life,” Khandana said.
“During the insurgency, people who worked for NGO’s were declared as infidels and that’s why I wanted to tell the local people that this not a bad job and it is for the welfare of human beings.”
Guli Khandana praised Malala for her hard work and sacrifices in female education. “She was a brave girl. I thanked the International community that they support Malala, because she suffered a lot in this region. Malala has raised her voice in favor of girl’s education. She has done a great job,” she said.
Recalling the past, Khandana said, “It was a terrible time of our life. It was a dark age. We request God not to count that period in our lives.”
Yet even now, she still receives threatening letters and phone calls, Khandana said.
“Thanks God now the situation is peaceful in Swat, but still there is a fear insurgency may come back to the region,” she said.