Who is the ideal Pakistani? The answer is fairly simple: a cisgender, heterosexual Punjabi, Sunni Muslim man. (Bonus points if he’s rich, or from a feudal, land-owning family.)
The state considers this primary actor in all its plans and policies. This actor is given the finest job opportunities (and not just in Punjab: higher government posts in provinces like Balochistan are also reserved for the Punjabis, while locals are hired for lower positions), armed forces only take action (against, for example, the TTP) when this actor is threatened, and this group makes up most of the administration.
But how is this ideal Pakistani (™) constructed? Among many other things, education plays an important role. To understand this better, let’s look at two of the aspects of the perfect Pakistani’s identity.
Pakistan is dominated by Sunni Muslims, most of whom pledge such loyalty to their religion that they are willing to die or (more commonly) kill in the name of religion. This extremist nature breeds the idea that only Sunni Muslims are true Muslims, and Pakistan’s minorities face the brunt of this extremism (which can range anywhere from forced conversions, blasphemy charges and mob lynching, state-level proclamations that Ahmedis are not Muslims, and chanting slogans like “Shia Kafir”). Within the classroom, these sentiments are reflected most commonly by erasure. Pakistan studies classes and textbooks never mention minority communities, except Hindus, who are deemed Indian and hence enemies, and the Islamiat curriculum only teaches Sunni Islam (and in a manner that suggests that Sunni Islam is the “correct and only” version of Islam). Instead of acknowledging differences, classrooms push one ‘acceptable’ identity towards students, which is reinforced by the treatment of minorities they see around them.
Gender and Sexual Orientation
When SNC’s new textbooks were first publicized, there was much outrage about this cover, which depicts the male members of the family physically elevated to a higher level.
This is not the only misogynistic element found in Pakistani textbooks. Women are usually shown taking care of the house, or in professions like teaching and nursing, while men thrive in every other role. And as far as transgender and non-binary representation is concerned, there is none–not in the textbooks and not in the classrooms. The curriculum is heteronormative, and any other sexuality is not only unrepresented, but also largely rejected. A poignant example recent example is Bahria University Karachi Campus putting up a “Say No To LGBTQ+” sign on campus, effectively telling all students who identify with the community that they don't belong.
Although this is a brief exploration of only two factors, it showcases how the curriculum and classroom environment is actively hostile for anyone who does not fit in the standard. Classrooms not only reinforce prejudices, but also construct new ones. The smallest first step towards tolerance in Pakistan should be to tackle biases and intolerance from textbooks and classrooms, and make at least these safe spaces for all communities.