A female university student quietly explains to a group of male colleagues that came to attend a study circle, the use and importance of a bra. The undergarment is displayed on a desk with barbed wire, prayer beads, and a snake around it — symbolizing its taboo in male-dominated Pashtun culture.
The other students, mostly young men in their 20s, listen quietly while their classmate describes the benefits of this piece of clothing, and tells them not to make women feel ashamed of openly hanging their undergarments in the sun to dry.
“It is part of our dress, a normal piece of cloth we use that offers support,” explains Sadaf Marjan, a university student attending the study circle. “[It] prevents sagging, improves [the] look and increases confidence,” Marjan tells her colleagues that to help their society flourish, they need to break taboos attached to women’s garments, health complications, pregnancy, periods, jobs, and social roles.
In another corner, a painting of a transgender person is on display. A burnt piece of wood from a temple burned down by a mob in Karak district hangs on a wall. Stones from rivers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are lined up to instill a sense of responsibility for the environment. Near the entrance on the right side, a huge bookshelf showcases books for people to read and research.
This is Mafkoora, a research and development center established in 2020 by a literary society in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The society is made up of 12 friends with educational backgrounds ranging from literature to comparative religions, history, philosophy, fine arts, education, and science. It aims to break social taboos and stigmas attached to women and transgender people and to rid Pashtuns of ignorance or ‘Ghairat’.
In Pasho, Mafkoora denotes a rational thought that is proven correct through logical, social, and scientific experience. The center strives to promote and strengthen a research culture among Pashtun youth to counter existing narratives of extremism and intolerance. Mafkoora aims to find the root cause of intolerant tendencies in society through research, discussions, and dialogue.
The study group started as a small cohort but soon grew as more people became attracted by the commitment, devotion, and quality work of its members. They initially faced obstacles finding a space to hold their meetings because they lacked funds to pay rent and buy supplies like books and stationery. But they’ve since been able to accrue resources to gather groups together weekly, promoting tolerance through research.
Promote knowledge, discourage war
To counter the narrative of war, Mafkoora highlights peaceful aspects of cultural values to discourage the glorification of war and warriors, especially those who invaded this region. “This is not the story of [the] distant past. Just a century ago we co-existed peacefully in a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual, and multi-ethnic society,” said Hayat Roghaani, the president of the society.
Over 70,000 people have lost their lives due to extremism, still, we glorify extremism in a region that is known for giving the world religions, civilizations, and governance systems, Roghaani said. “Why not claim glory through knowledge, science, and art, for this soil didn’t give birth to worriers only,” he said. “Our history is full of personalities who played a fantastic role in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, literature, and fields of science.”
Islamic history does have famous warriors like Khalid Bin Waleed, Saad Bin Abi Waqas, Khushal Khan Khattak, and Ahmad Shah Abdali, Roghaani said. But the Islamic world has also produced important scholars, politicians, and intellectuals like Abdullah Ibne Abbas and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. He argues their work should be more highly revered than warriors for the time being given the massive losses Pakistan incurred during the war on terror.
Roghaani said very few people from his region know about scholars like Panini, the first Sanskrit grammarian and pioneer in scientific theory, phonetics, phonology, and morphology who was born in the 5th century BC in Swabi district Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
He said examples like these show how civilised, innovative, creative and skilled people from the Islamic world can be as evidenced by well-planned heritage sites in the region.
The center translates famous literary works from Pashto into English and Urdu and English into Pashto. Tauqeer Abshar, a young Pashtun poet and student of English literature recently translated Ezra Pound’s “A Half Nude Girl” into Pashto.
Abshar’s translation of “A Half Nude Girl’ has been recorded by “Om,” the music academy the society is developing, and the video is being edited and mixed for “Gath,” the society’s recently-established theatre. So far, Mafkoora has translated and published 29 books on different topics.
The society also translates regional history by local historians into English to contribute a wider perspective about the region’s landscape, topography, tribes, heroes, villains, culture, and traditions. It also works on protecting and promoting languages including Hindko, Khowar, Kalasha, Hindko, Kohistani, Saraiki, Torwali, and Pashto. “Unfortunately, a very small number of Pashtuns could write and even speak Pashtu correctly. There are over a dozen Urdu newspapers but just one or two Pashto circulation with a very smaller number of readers,” Roghaani said.
The center also started publishing a magazine for children in Pashto called “Ranaban” – The Garden of Light. The magazine contains lessons about language, science, respect for ecology, history, literature, folklore, painting, music, sanitation, and water.
Mafkoora also added topics to a preexisting magazine called ‘Olasi Lobey’ (Indigenous games) which is played by children in rural and urban localities. These games are an impressive example of participation, assistance, and cooperation among children. One of the games called “Chindro” promotes sanitation.
Many girls in the community bring their younger brothers to join these games and take turns with fellow players holding the child so they can also play.The Mafkoora society believes promoting these games could inculcate a sense of responsibility, compassion, cooperation, tolerance, and cleanliness, which they believe are necessary for children to grow up in a healthy and constructive environment.
The magazine has separate pages each for vocabulary, mathematics, environment and its importance, cleanliness, science, and culture. The magazine also allocated a page for haiku and puzzles to awaken the creativity of children. The stories from textbooks restate ideas of tolerance, logic, and peace. The center has a library composed of books that were mostly donated by community members or purchased from old book shops. It welcomes book donations that could help researchers and students deepen their knowledge.
De-toxifying culture through music
To rid the cultural values of extremist tendencies, the center also strives to promote music. It displayed musical instruments including drums, flutes, and rabab on a desk. The center’s founders also intend to set up a music academy called “Om” or “Organic Musica” where folk songs could be re-sung and preserved.
The center wants to counter the social stigma attached to music and musicians. “We all love music but hate musicians. This double standard is a hurdle in way of our music industry to flourish and we will continue to counter it,” Roghaani said.
A weekly study circle is a frequent feature, attracting people with different professional backgrounds and different genders where people can exchange views, ask questions, and practice critical thinking. Visitors are asked to practice patience and respond to criticisms politely and with logic. No one faces discrimination based on their color, religion, or language. The society said it has organized 25 debates so far.
The society has recently established a theater called ‘Gatha’ where they perform live plays. Those with a passion for music come and learn how to write music and play instruments of their choice. So far, the center has performed three plays in the open-air theater on different issues. The theater will soon have recordings equipment to record plays and upload them to YouTube and other platforms of social media.
The center has a separate space for paintings called ‘Anzoor Gallery’ or painting gallery with artwork showing the plight of women, children, and transgender people. The gallery also has paintings of historic figures including Zoroaster, Buddha, Khushal Khan Khattak, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan aka Bacha Khan. The gallery will soon also launch a website so its work can be viewed online and plans to start holding art classes for students.
Mafkoora also applied to publish a research journal called ‘Sardaryab,’ which will publish quality research articles aimed to increase public awareness on topics of importance in Pakistani society.