Raising Her Voice

Empowering women to engage effectively in governance

A life-long struggle - Story of a woman who took vocational training as a full- time job in a conservative environment

By Maria Tabassum  In a small room of almost two-century-old Gurdwara Bhai Beasa Singh Sahab, situated in Jogiwara locality of Mohalla Ghazi Abdur Rasheed Siddiqui in Peshawar, you will see an elderly woman.  At first sight, you may mistake her for a helpless being who has taken shelter under this roof with her belongings comprising few clothes, some household items and a pile of books. After a brief chat with her though, her elegance, polite way of talking and maturity of thoughts will defy your first impression. She is 78-year-old Shafqat Ara, who is among the pioneers of technical and vocational training for girls in the province and has been imparting various skills for four decades.  Sharing the story of her life, Shafqat Ara said she was born on September 12, 1934 in Jallandhar, East Punjab in India. She had to leave her hometown along with her family and relocate to Faisalabad. After completing education and undergoing several courses of technical education and vocational training, she was sent to Peshawar with a group of five other teachers, a headmistress, a watchman and clerk by the Punjab government to launch the first vocational training institute of the then North-West Frontier Province named, Government Vocational School at Jogiwara inside Hashtnagri.  The retired educationist said the school started functioning in the spacious building of the gurdwara or Sikh temple which was lying vacant after the partition of the Subcontinent in 1947 and was under the control of the Auqaf Department. “Initially, there was no electricity, no water. The teachers made contributions to ensure basic facilities such as water and power connections,” recalls Shafqat Ara, while reminiscing about the initial days of her career.  “The women teachers were accommodated in a room of the school building. Keeping in mind conservative environment of the province, our high-ups asked us not to go outside the building. A comparatively aged teacher, Ghulam Fatima, accompanied by the watchman, used to go to Karimpura Bazaar and run errands for all of us,” recollects Shafqat Ara.  Pointing to lack of interest by the people in girl education, she says they were least willing to get daughters educated. Getting them schooled till the 5th grade was deemed enough. But slowly and gradually, they realised the importance of vocational training and students of the adjacent Jogiwara Primary School started to enroll for the courses after finishing the 5th grade, says Shafqat who is called amma (mother) by other dwellers of the building for her politeness and affectionate behavior as her leitmotif is jani and laal.  She said with 80 sewing machines, the school in its early days offered three year-diploma. In first year, the girls were taught to stitch knickers, bib and feeder cover; in second, shirt, frock, pyjama and in third year, waistcoat and men’s shalwar qamis.  Recalling and appreciating the help extended by the government of Punjab, Shafqat Ara said, even thread and cloth for students was provided by the neighbouring province although the skill learning was free of cost. Most of the girls used to leave school after first year, but gradually their interest level raised and they started going for three years’ training.  When asked if she was satisfied with the state of technical and vocational education that she had co-pioneered 58 years back in the province, Shafqat who had joined the department in scale five and retired as deputy director technical education, says today there are scores of vocational centres in various parts of the province; teachers and the students have facilities which is really a great source of satisfaction for me.  Drawing a comparison, she said: “I kept performing my job for Rs34.50 per month salary in the initial days of my service while now a teacher gets a minimum of Rs 25,000. We sometimes used to work till evening under the sky as we did not have electricity. It was the fruit of hard work of the pioneers of technical education that such institutes were later set up in Nowshera, Mardan, Karak, Kohat and Abbottabad, and Dera Ismail Khan districts. Today every district has one such institute with nine teachers, two clerks and a headmistress each,” points out the elderly woman who retired from service in 1994.  Shafqat Ara has no close relative after the demise of her only sister and brother. She still lives in a small room of the building, pays rent and utility bills willingly as a responsible citizen. In year 2006, a portion of the building collapsed and the school was shifted to Gulbahar. Keeping in view her services, she was offered a furnished room in the new building of the school, but she declined the offer as she loves the institute she co-pioneered. She was offered five years’ extension in service by the government at her retirement, but she refused to accept it, saying that would be something unfair to the serving employees.  About the people of the province, Shafqat Ara says they are sincere and loving people with great respect for women. “When a portion of the school building fell down in 2006, the people gathered and offered me to live with them but I declined the offer with thanks. I have lived in this place for 58 years and have developed love for it. Only the first of every month is the day when I leave this room as I have to go to the bank on the Grand Trunk Road to get pension. Leading an honourable life is a great blessing. I was a young woman when I came here. Today, I am 78. I thank God for the respectable life I have lived despite being single. I wish to spend last moments of my life here and I want to be laid to rest in Peshawar after my death as this adopted city has given me respect and satisfaction,” she said.  (Maria Tabassum is a Peshawar-based journalist. She can be reached at mariajournalist@yahoo.com)

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