Voices Unheard: Religious minority students navigate Pakistan’s higher education system


 Presenter (s) Mariam Parvez Sheikh, CIES

Religion-based violence and intolerance is often fueled by the education system of Pakistan, largely through the biased portrayals of religious minorities in textbooks (Afzal, 2017). The political role of education in imparting the state ideology and constructing an exclusivist national identity has been widely investigated (Lall & Vickers, 2009). However, the voices of those affected have been rarely taken into account, particularly in the context of inclusive education. Conducted in 2018 in Lahore, in this exploratory study I explore whether and in what ways students identifying with different minority faiths feel included or excluded in their graduate studies. Research design comprised of six semi-structured, individual interviews of religious minority students, i.e. Ahmadi, Shia, Hindu, Christian, Agha Khanis, engaged in higher education (age 18-22) and enrolled at a private university in the city of Lahore. Their responses are examined through a thematic analysis which identifies patterns of meanings that emerge, in relation to the students’ experiences of feeling equal, supported and integrated in the school culture. The level of inclusivity felt by the students is studied under a constructivist lens to explore the multiple layers of their individual and collective identity and also, analyze the mechanisms that support or constrain feelings of inclusivity within education. This study is underpinned by two theoretical frameworks; rights-based approach (Tomasevski, 2001) and the capability approach (Sen, 1982, 1985, 1993, 1999; Nussbaum, 2000, 2011).

Findings suggest that teachers play an immense role in creating a sense of inclusivity. Teacher agency is influential in imparting values of tolerance and the primary reason why religious minority students felt considerably included. They agreed that the dominant educational discourse entrenches biases against minority faiths. According to them, the resulting discomfort is mitigated by teachers who encourage critical perspectives and create an inclusive learning environment. However, they felt a strong disjuncture between the academic and non-academic space due to the absence of a similar inclusive culture in other socio-political structures, outside the formal classroom. Years of religiously biased schooling has reinforced power dynamics within social institutions and led minority students to negotiate their identity in different ways. I argue that this negatively affects their capabilities as students and perpetuates the social exclusion of minority religious communities. It constrains their personal agency and infringes on the freedom to function as respected and dignified citizens of Pakistan.

The implications of this study concern the security and well-being of religious minority students. Recent incidents of alleged blasphemy against religious minority students have shown how intolerance in educational spaces has become increasingly prevalent; serving the needs of minority students through formulated policies in education would mean giving them an equal educational experience and the freedom to achieve what they value. Inclusive culture in education would also encourage a societal change by increasing tolerance towards people of other faiths and reducing civic disunity.
There is a dearth of literature on the condition of minority students in higher education in South Asia in particular; their experiences, interactions and the challenges they face. My paper presentation seeks to engage with higher education contexts in other countries for a comparative analysis of dominant national and institutional cultures and understand how minority students navigate these contexts.

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