Education Took Her from Darkness to Light
Pakistan ‘gypsy’ woman overcomes tremendous barriers to earn three master’s degrees
[Islamabad] Born in a tent to a deeply impoverished “gypsy” family that walked the streets to sell bracelets, Nazneen Akhter Nazo set out to gain an education despite facing the worst sort of social discrimination. In the end, she realized her ambitions, breaking a centuries-old chain of ignorance and tribal norms.
Today Nazo, the first “gypsy,” or Khanabadosh, woman in Pakistan to earn three master’s degrees (in English language, history and education), teaches English in a state-run elementary school in the suburbs of Gujar Khan, in Punjab Province.
The provincial education department designated Nazo a “Master Trainer” in 2017, and since then she has trained more than 1,000 senior male and female teachers, according to official data.
Master trainers, highly skilled and qualified instructors, play an important role in the education department and guide other teachers regarding the latest pedagogical methodologies.
Nazo belongs to a downtrodden sector of society, without any useful familial or social connections, which is why her achievements have not been appreciated at any level in the country.
She spoke with The Media Line in an exclusive interview.
“I was born in 1982, in Surgh Dhan village, located about 80 miles northeast of the federal capital Islamabad. My parents were a part of a gypsy tribe and used to sell bangles [rigid bracelets] in the streets. I had one younger sister who died in 2000,” she said.
Recalling her childhood, Nazo said she “would go with her parents to sell bangles early every morning and see children going to school wearing tidy uniforms. The sight always inspired me and I wished that I could go to school in the same way.”
“One evening my father gave me some coins to get candies. I went to the nearby shop and instead of buying candies I bought a notebook and pencil,” she said.
She continued, “My father asked me about the candies and I frightenedly revealed that I wanted to get an education. My father hugged me and with tear-filled eyes, promised that he would enroll me in school at any cost.
“I was so happy, I could not sleep that night as my dream was turning into reality and our little tent seemed like a palace to me,” Nazo said.
“Breaking the centuries-old tribal norms, the next morning my father enrolled me in the primary school of the village where our family was camped,” she said.
“Tribal elders threatened my father, [telling him] to pull me out from the school or otherwise be ready to face dire consequences, but my father refused.”
After his unequivocal response, “the tribe boycotted us for a long time,” she added.
Then, when she was in ninth grade, her father died. Her “mother was forced by tribal custom to marry her off at the young age of 13,” Nazo recounted.
“Despite getting married at a young age, I had only one mission: not to sell bangles in the streets, but to get a higher education,” she added.
“After my parents, I will always be thankful to my husband who helped me a lot in fulfilling my ambitions,” she continued.
She continued on that mission and in 2009, she got her first master’s degree, in history. Then she earned a master’s in education in 2014 and one in English literature in 2016.
“The biggest change education has made in my life is that I am working with dignity and honor,” Nazo said. “I have four sons and all of them are studying in well-reputed institutions and the important thing is that we are living in our own house.”
Her desire to get an education was “endless” and had transformed her fate and that of her descendants, Nazo said.
“I thought that teaching children would mean giving them the gift of a lifetime,” she said.
“Despite extreme poverty and limited sources, I was able to break through the barriers and overcame all the challenges,” Nazo said. “Without struggles, we never grow and never get stronger, so it’s important for us to tackle challenges on our own and not rely on help from others,” she summed up, paraphrasing Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Khanabadosh in Pakistan live in slums set up along roadsides and in vacant plots, without basic facilities such as potable water, sanitation, electricity and gas. They have their world, where they live according to their own rules. These families do not educate their children; they send them out to earn money. Educating girls is a particularly great sin and crime for them.
The Khanabadosh remain invisible and abandoned by the state.
Some of these families are day laborers; some follow traditional professions such as drum beating and putting on monkey shows, etc. Being nomadic, they do not own property, settle down permanently, or have the permanent addresses necessary to qualify for many government benefits.
The Khanabadosh are politically and socially marginalized and alienated. Despite the country’s constitution, they are deprived of the most basic human and citizenship rights.
The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) is an autonomous federal agency that manages the data of all the citizens of Pakistan.
NADRA spokesperson Faiq Ali Chachar told the Media Line that “the organization does not deal with the gypsies.” The spokesperson did not comment further.
GODH (an Urdu word which means “lap of the mother”) is a Lahore-based nongovernmental organization working to support and uplift marginalized communities.
Nazir Ahmed Ghazi, GODH’s executive director, told The Media Line that “Unfortunately, there is no official record of the country’s gypsy population. According to our recent survey and some other available data, more than 20 million gypsies are present across the country and they are mostly found in the outskirts of major cities and towns.”
Ghazi added that his “organization had implemented a health program for gypsy women and children and was presently running nine schools in nine different hamlets of the gypsy community in the suburbs of Lahore, where about 800 children are enrolled.”
Muhammed Mubasher, a head teacher from the Aahdi Government Elementary School where Nazo works, told The Media Line that “as a staff member, Nazneen Akhter is a role model for the male teachers as well.
“Nazneen is an inspiring and dedicated female teacher who has an extraordinary passion to teach children,” he said. “Since she has been appointed in our school, the number of children enrolled in the school has increased significantly. Nazneen is a quiet trendsetter for the most deprived part of society,” Mubasher said.
Nayyer Sabah, a Manchester, England-based doctoral student and a former lecturer at the Punjab College of Information Technology Rawalpindi, told the Media Line that “Gypsies are stereotyped in our society where education is considered a barrier for them.
“In fact, Nazneen Akhter Nazo is a real hero of our nation, an enthusiastic, passionate and brave lady. She married at the age of 13 and gave birth to four children, but her passion was resilient as she aimed to attain her mission by breaching cultural boundaries,” Sabah added.
“Nazneen’s upbringing was unusual but not unique. Formal education is not a priority in their culture, but her love of books developed her interest, which enabled her to do master’s in three different subjects and gave her the opportunity to choose the ‘prophetic’ profession of teaching,” she added.
Dure Shahwar, a Lahore-based leading woman rights activist and chief operating officer of the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA), told The Media Line that “Nazneen is representing the majority of the women in Pakistan, a role model who in true spirit is giving back to the community and paving ways for other females.
“Nazneen is the successor to our patriarchal system,” Shahwar said. “Education and awareness are the important pillars of empowerment. An empowered woman empowers women.”