BIBLE SOCIETY NEWS | Anne Lim
Spending a week in Pakistan in September was one of the toughest things I have ever had to do. It was unbearably hot, the schedule was hectic, the security apparatus hair-raising and the expectations were high.
But it was also one of the most worthwhile and transformative experiences of my life. Instead of being just a journalist observing from the sidelines, I was an honoured guest at the various graduation ceremonies for the women’s adult literacy classes I visited with Pakistan Bible Society.
As I arrived at their celebrations, women, whose lives were unimaginably harsh, who lived without basic amenities we take for granted in the West, showered me in flower petals and received me with gratitude and joy.
Sometimes I even had to cut a ribbon like a celebrity, and afterwards I would be mobbed like a pop star. Some women would ask me to sign their Bibles. I didn’t expect this type of welcome and found it a bit overwhelming.
But I was also grateful to be given the opportunity to express my delight in celebrating their success with them, to pass on the good wishes of our Australian donors and wish them well for their future.
These women of lowly means and status were dressed in a gorgeous array of colours and displayed an attitude that put me to shame. They were all eager to share their delight in having learnt to read the Bible and discovering its treasures.
There they discovered that they are precious in God’s sight, no matter how poor or oppressed they may be in Pakistani society.
For them literacy was like coming out of slavery. It opened the gate to a better life, not only for them but also for their children and other family members.
With such low literacy rates – only two in five Pakistani women can read – they face many obstacles to getting an education. Most poor families can only afford to send one daughter to school while another is kept at home to do the chores. Most marry early – around age 20 – and then their domestic burdens only increase. Most also have jobs in the fields or in factories.
The women I met explained that they had to rush to finish their chores early so that they could attend literacy classes, which run for five days a week for six months. It’s easy to think it’s all too hard, especially when faced with ridicule and criticism from their family and neighbours. They need our encouragement and prayers.
(The names of the women featured below have been changed.)
Fifteen-year-old Arati was a cotton picker who earned about $1 a day for picking around 50kg of cotton. But before she learned to read, the boss’s agents were underpaying her by knocking a few kilos off the weight she had harvested. Once she could read the scale, she knew exactly how much she should be paid and she could no longer be cheated. “Now I can read, I feel empowered,” she says.
I was really moved by the graduation ceremony I attended in a marquee at this village. It was stiflingly hot and all the women’s beautiful faces were beaded with sweat, but they radiated joy in their accomplishments. It was heartening to see how being able to read the Bible had strengthened their faith. Here one of the teachers receives a stack of large-print Urdu Bibles to give to her graduating students.
Here we visit a literacy class in the enclosed courtyard of a house. It’s one of about 20 literacy classes of 20-25 women each in slum areas in this district, which are run in partnership with local churches. During the first three months they learn to read three stories from the Old Testament in large print, then they start reading the New Testament. Most have never touched a book before joining the class.
Housewife and seamstress Ezra is thrilled that she is now able to write her name and read the Bible to her four children every day. She says her children are very proud of her. She can’t help them with their homework yet – they help her! – but she hopes to continue her studies and one day become a literacy teacher. “Now I am more confident in my life and when I go shopping, and I can talk in good manners. Now I am much stronger in my faith and empowered to be in a close relationship with God.”
“Save me, save me!” cries a young woman performing a skit at a graduation ceremony at a settlement 60km from Lahore. A mullah comes along, then a rich woman, but neither his rites nor her money can free the prisoner from a net of sin made out of bamboo sticks. It is only the Bible teacher who can free her. “If you read the Bible you will be able to escape the net of sin,” supervisor Daud tells the crowd. “This is not a drama. This is a true picture. We had a family here in the clutches of Satan who are now free thanks to Pakistan Bible Society.”
“I am the eldest and my parents went out to work so I had to care for the younger brothers and sisters and they couldn’t afford the fees to send me to school,” says Parveen, who, along with her mother, graduated from a literacy class in a slum area of a city north of Lahore. “I decided to go to literacy class for my children’s sake. I felt I should be able to teach them in their early education. It was very difficult to attend the classes because I have to care for my kids and do everything at home, then I had to spend time on study.”