Set up to fail: Pakistan’s Single National Curriculum will only make life harder for religious minority children

In July 2020, the government of Pakistan announced the creation of a ‘Single National Curriculum’ (SNC) to replace its 2006 school curriculum. Given the country’s long history of discriminatory practices in educational settings, and the SNC’s stated objective of providing “all children… a fair and equal opportunity to receive high quality education,” one would have expected this to be a welcome development for minorities in Pakistan, a chance to tackle inequalities and division from the ground up.

Sadly, this was not the case.

In an attempt to make the proposed curriculum more digestible to Pakistan’s more conservative Islamist elements, and particularly to win the support of the country’s madrassahs (Islamic religious schools), the government of Punjab granted the Islamic Muttahida Ulema Board (MUB) a role in the review and approval of all textbooks under the SNC.

This has proved disastrous, providing the MUB with an opportunity to reinforce the sectarian and divisive agendas which have permeated the Pakistani education system for decades.

A ludicrous choice for religious minority children

Under the SNC, which has already been brought into force for children in Grades 1-5, students are now required to undergo even more Islamic religious teaching in compulsory subjects.

This is enforced regardless of their religion or belief, and despite the fact that Article 22 of the Pakistani Constitution asserts: “No person attending any education institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or take part in any religious ceremony, or attend religious worship, if such instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.”

As is already the case for many subjects in higher grades, SNC textbooks in English, Geography and Urdu all feature extensive Islamic religious content, and the government has also promised to introduce Qur’an classes and significantly increase the proportion of Islamic studies in the curriculum.

An English textbook requires all students, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to write Arabic text beside the name of the Prophet Muhammad and other prophets.

Unsurprisingly, parents of religious minority children are not satisfied with this. While children are at least in theory given the right to opt out of Islamic studies, the inclusion of such content in other subjects presents far greater challenges. The government’s response has been to tell all non-Muslim students to leave the class during the lessons in question.

This ludicrous proposal isolates religious minority children from their Muslim counterparts, and, if enacted, could see students missing out on up to half their education in some classes without alternative provisions, jeopardising their academic attainment and chances for further study.

There are concerns that the MUB wishes to take things even further in its promotion of Islamic ideals within Pakistani education. Reports have emerged that the board is demanding that clothing be added to anatomical diagrams in biology textbooks depicting internal organs and intestines of the human body. Even in mathematics, a subject which has nothing to do with religious affairs, the MUB has called for the removal of references to concepts of ‘interest’ and ‘mark-up’, which they consider un-Islamic.

This interference presents challenges for Pakistan’s schools themselves as well. By increasing the proportion of Islamic content in the curriculum, public schools will almost certainly be required to hire specialist madrassah graduates to teach it. Some have warned that this will likely exacerbate sectarianism in schools, as madrassah education is viewed as sectarian by design.

Set up to fail

Ultimately, the government’s eagerness to please the religio-political parties in the country, and their ignorance to the concerns of religious minority parents, holds grave implications for the future of Pakistan.

Firstly, such practices will no doubt heighten religious intolerance in the country. If children are taught that those who do not adhere to the majority religion are somehow different or even lesser than those who do, the pervading divisions with Pakistani society will only continue in future generations.

Second, by allowing religious influence in subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with Islam, the government sets up children to fail. How can a child grow up to be a doctor without proper knowledge of the human anatomy?

Under Imran Khan, the government of Pakistan has consistently failed to combat religious intolerance in the country. The SNC could have been a noble step in the right direction to changing that, but instead, in its current form, it will only serve to exacerbate division, inequality and intolerance.

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer