Sitara Brooj Akbar, a 12-year-old girl, hails from Rabwah, a town of 70,000 people, some 180 km west of Lahore. Last year the young Sitara achieved a noteworthy academic record: She became the first girl of her age to clear the Cambridge University Ordinary Level examinations in three subjects: English, Urdu and Physics. She was nine when she cleared Chemistry, and 10 years of age when she cleared Biology.
Sitara claims two local icons. For style and female power, she emulates Benazir
Bhutto, wearing a light scarf casually over the back of her head and across her shoulders. I am ‘daughter of the east’ she says, taking on a title accorded to Bhutto. Her intellectual hero is Abdus Salam, a Pakistani physicist who won the country’s only Nobel Prize (in Physics) in 1979 but was treated quite shabbily, to say the least.
Salam, now dead, and Sitara have two things in common: a deep intellectual curiosity and a shared faith – they hailed from the Ahmadi community, who number in several millions in Pakistan, and to whom the fundamental freedom to practice faith has been under threat in Pakistan since as early as 1954, when civilians took to the streets in anti-Ahmadi riots.
Under Bhutto, a constitutional amendment circa 1974 enforced that the Ahmadis were non-Muslim. Our dictator general solidified this some years later by enforcing the horrifying Ordinance XX, which prevented Ahmadis from building mosques, practicing Islam, calling the Aazan, and citing from the Quran or Hadith. In short, the ordinance made it difficult for Ahmedis to live their daily lives.
I was fifteen years old, or just short of it, when I got my first passport. That first time, my father carefully filled out the form – with the carbon copy below filed in his immaculate recording system. I blindly signed it.
Five years later when my passport expired, I applied for a renewal in Washington DC while studying in the US. It was my first encounter with state-endorsed suppression. At the bottom near the signature section I had to agree to this ridiculous statement: “I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani to be an imposter Nabi and also consider his followers whether belonging to the Lahori or Qadiani group to be non-Muslim”.
I was, of course, appalled, and called up the Pakistan embassy to register my complaint and my ‘refusal’ to sign any such document. After hearing me out, the then counsellor patiently advised me to pursue my rights agenda through other means. “I also don’t agree with this,” the now-senior foreign affairs man told me. “But you should just sign it so that you can practically move about. Otherwise you won’t get a passport.”
I submitted like thousands of unhappy, questioning souls that made up our chand-and-sitara polity.
The irony, of course, is in Akbar’s commitment to her country. Asked on a TV show about where she draws her inspiration and her intelligence, she answers, “You can call it jasbah. I want to do something for my country. I want to do something to make future success.”
Sitara offers some useful education advice. Learning by rote is useless, says this 12-year-old who not only grasped Newton’s law in 45 minutes but can also explain it conceptually and practically in much less time. If you don’t understand concepts in childhood, you’ll never grasp things in adulthood, she says. In school, her teachers found her an irritant, asking too many questions about processes they possibly didn’t fully grasp themselves.
Sitara, like Malala, is an example of what is possible despite old bureaucracies, petty prejudices and visceral dislikes. Perhaps she could be a Saarc education ambassador to inspire our region’s often ignored, bright young women.