Part 5 – Breswana

She is the heart and the passion behind the school. Sarcastic as hell and a beautiful woman. She would shout at the kids and acknowledge their work at the same time. She is the reason that school has a functioning and absolutely amazing library. She instills her own want for learning into them. She treats all of the kids as her own. Her enthusiasm to retain good teachers, teachers who care and teachers who enjoy the space is incomparable. The kids have been exposed to new ideas, new sports, equipment and more because of her commitment to the children. She tears up when they achieve across fields. She creates spaces for argument, discussion and growth. This is an education I would have loved. She is special, this many people know, but she never sat in my classroom to monitor how I worked with the kids. I had a free hand to help them learn however I deemed fit as long as I was doing right by the children. This made her someone I loved being around.

You would catch her sitting around after school, before school, during lunch ensuring the kids who needed help had it.

But she isn’t all teach and no fun. Sree, Baji and I would spend hours watching a pakistani soap, playing scrabble and arguing about the world’s dismal state at large. She cares and cares a lot. I remember her asking the kids to read my work cause she wanted them to learn. The kids being themselves said wonderful, shy things later.

Sabbah Haji Baji is a fantastic woman. I would spend a lot of energy dissing anyone who disagrees.

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Part 4 – Breswana

I would have to write about my adventures with class 7 (now 8) separately. But in today’s edition of nostalgia is the strength of my days in Breswana. Muneeza Banoo Khandi and Humeera Banoo Batt: these two gorgeous, intelligent and funny children were my daily light.

Muneeza, the earnest and hard working student. Her papers were marvel to read. She wrote with clarity beyond her 13 years. Her beautiful handwriting was an additional plus. Though superbly introverted, Muneeza, when used to you, would crack jokes. Her Mehfooz smacks are priceless moments in the day. Munee was every teachers charmed child. Her diligence and sincerity apart, there was a curiosity to her studying. She wanted more and more information. All the information her little head could hold and more. Her aspirations were to learn. She would be the most upset when I scolded class 7 (which was a lot, despite the biggest soft corner for them). For me Muneeza is a star not because of her academic achievements, which were many, but for her simple, kind nature. She took to reading so easily. She also took to sports. Her excelling in everything makes you want to hold her tight. To be honest, her sparkling eyes full of yearning to learn is what I remember about her. Muneeza Banoo Khandi would have read so voraciously at the age of 20 that I hope it opens many many doors for her.

Funny, smart and dancer Humeera. I’ll tell you a secret, her reciting Invictus at my farewell remains my go-to video on bad days. I still remember this confident girl step up and recite this poem infront of everyone. Giving us all goosebumps. The passion, the feeling in the words came through in her voice. She got away with a lot with me. She could lure me back to class and ask, “Why angry?” in the softest voice. She was a hardworking kid that could dance so beautifully. I fondly remember how she would turn up outside the volunteer house in case she wanted more attention after classes. She tells me that thanks to me she lost little bit of her fear for dogs. This is amazing for me. When I think of Humeera, I remember the smiling girl asking me how I am; I remember her nose buried in a book; I remember her leading my hand to dance with her. I hope this girl continues down the path of reciting fabulous poetry and owning the stage or whatever her kind heart wishes for.
Learning and acing multiple talents is a Haji Public School trait that most students owned. The teachers were mere vessels to direct them to their study books occasionally. And it was a pleasure on most days. Okay. I said most?

Part 2 – Breswana

Kulsuma, Class 5: *forcefully took her hijab off during class*

Me: What happened?

Kulsuma: it is very hot ma’am!

This wasn’t an uncommon feature in Haji Public School, the school hidden in the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir. Many girls wore the hijab. The only compulsion was for it to be clean. The girls took it off without any hesitation when they felt like it. Some of them wore it on some days and didn’t on others. Sometimes it would fall off their heads. Without a sense of panic, they would readjust the hijab whenever the task at hand was completed.

I remember a mixed cricket match when Muneeza, Class 7 (piece of my heart) was  batting. The hijab plus the heat and helmet bothered her so she took it off and continued to play in style. She wore it back when she was done. Star.

If you follow @Imsabbah (who runs the school) on Twitter and glanced at her mentions, you would be shocked about the perception people have about children wearing the hijab. Though, visiting the school would tell you how diversity flourishes on its grounds. The girls and boys have school uniforms; girls wore salwar and kurta, and boys wore pant and shirt. On Fridays, the children wore their colourful best.

Most of the girls dressed in salwar and kurta. Ifra, Class 5 on regular days wore a shirt and pant to school. But on Fridays she dressed in salwars, flowing dresses, colourful prints and – wait for it – sneakers. Obviously she couldn’t be bothered by our narrow minded vision of fashion and dressed in comfort. Plus, I suppose sneakers are easier to run up and down the mountain, which the kids indulged in despite our frowns. She had jumped over the perceived pressures of choosing between what is understood to be feminine and masculine and explored the diverse items of clothing available to her.

I think back to my school days when I HAD to wear the pinafore. I hated it. I was ridiculed endlessly about my hairy legs and it was cumbersome to be my unfeminine self in it. It didn’t stop me but it felt tedious. I would have loved to have the option to choose something else. 

As an adult, my access to this choice has been liberating. I dress in loose kurtas purchased from the ‘men’s section’ in stores. I also wear tight kurtas stitched by a ‘ladies tailor’. This diversity in my dressing was always looked at with bewilderment in the city. I would hear comments about how I don’t dress appropriately or didn’t have a style. I dressed this way even while teaching at the school. The kids in the school didn’t notice an anomaly. In fact, going by their goodbye letters to me, they were only worried about the smile I wore or didn’t wear. (I cried a lot on the last day.)

When I began teaching there, Sabbah encouraged me to play sports with them. I loved it. After they read my essay on playing baseball, the curious fellows wanted to learn. I spent an hour teaching them the rules, explaining how to run, hit and catch. They were enthusiastic but bored in no time.

“What do you mean I need to run when I hit?? What if I become out?” – Ajaz, Class 7

It was hilarious. Soon after boredom reached its maximum point, we began to play football together. I was chosen on one team with Humeera and Muneeza was on the other. I was awfully gentle while tackling them. But I stopped for a moment to watch Humeera try to take the ball from Haroon and I realised, this girl is absolutely free on the field. There is something that was ingrained in me that she hasn’t learnt yet.

It was a moment of happiness.

The hijab has begun to occupy our mindspaces in a very powerful way. We tell women to not wear them; to wear them and obsess about what it means when we see them wearing it or not. These might have valid arguments in there somewhere. But, reducing muslim women and girls to the hijab is not helping anyone. If not wearing the hijab/niqab means no access to education or sports, would that be a better option? Yay we have freed the women and girls. Victory at last? The world unfortunately is not black and white. It is lived in the greys. Here are these beautiful girls learning about the world, learning sports and kicking ass at them. Expose them to ideas, to worlds and words, to sports and women achievers – dressed in varied attires. Teach them they can be among them. That is where I would put my effort.

With countries banning the hijab in public spaces and burqini on beaches, countries where women are forced into them, we really must stop and check why we are obsessed with the hijab.

Till then, I take cue from Ifra, Muneeza, Humeera, Kulsuma and many other lovely young girls.

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She and I played with the baby. We bounced him about. I tried to tell him stories but I couldn’t make him smile. Then the conversation of scars came about. He was nine months old. He had no clue, yet, what scars meant. And she and I gave him a 5 minute crash course on physical and emotional scars. His big eyes became bigger. His mother laughed.

‘Just crazy aunties,’ I told his mother. We might have been inappropriate.

Were we being morbid? I don’t think so. Are there things you don’t tell a kid? I hope he listens carefully and someone or the other tells him the truth always.

My niece came over the other day. I noticed how babies tend to follow their natural instinct. I tried to carry her and she screamed a no. I didn’t challenge her word and let her go. She has been this way for a while now. She turns two years in three days and she has refused advances or me picking her up. I try to take her word for it. But often adults around nudge her to give in. Till now, I have put my foot down and respected her wishes.

Why do we force them to give up on their instinct? I wish she holds onto hers.

My neighbour’s daughter is around 7 years old. She is a bright and adorable kid. She came with me and the dog for a walk the other day. The dog has been struggling a little. But she loves kids and I love seeing her with them. The three of us sat on the footpath below the building, like the dog loves to do. Every statement I made she responded with a ‘why’. Initially, I answered very patiently which gave her the encouragement to continue asking more questions. But eventually, I got tired. I almost asked her to shh. Then I realised often adults stop asking questions after a point. This habit actually frustrates me a decent bit. For I imagine that if we all asked questions, the world would be a different place.

How can I whine about adults not asking questions if I teach a child not to ask them? I hope she keeps asking questions. More and more.