Gunfire rang out as Fatima Bibi squeezed off three shots, hitting her target every time. Then she lowered her Glock pistol, turned to her fellow academics and smiled.
Her instructor was smiling, too.
“These ladies are better shots than some of our men,” police firearms instructor Abdul Latif said. “They learned to handle a gun in just two days. Their confidence level is remarkable.”
Dangerous times call for unusual measures in northwestern Pakistan, where the police are offering firearms instruction to schoolteachers and university lecturers since the Taliban massacred 150 people at a Peshawar school in December last year.
Bibi was one of eight lecturers from the Frontier College for Women, a postgraduate college, who attended a two-day firearms course at the provincial police firing range last week.
They learned to load, aim and fire weapons ranging from pistols to assault rifles. They also discussed self-defense techniques, and how to defend their students if the Taliban stormed in during class.
“The Dec. 16 tragedy showed us that we need to learn to be able to take care of ourselves and our students,” assistant professor Naheed Hussain said, who took the course while still wearing her black teaching robe. “We will not replace our pens with guns. But the situation could arise where we are required to serve our country.”
The initiative for the gun lessons comes from the provincial government and the police authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, as part of a push to increase security at schools. The province has borne the brunt of Pakistani Taliban attacks over the years.
Gun ownership is common across northwestern Pakistan, which is largely populated by ethnic Pashtuns and includes the restive tribal districts. However, the advent of armed teachers has made uneasy many parents, who say it is the responsibility of the state, and not teachers, to protect schools and universities.
The notion of armed female teachers, in particular, has provoked consternation across conservative Pashtun society, raising a storm of protest that officials said could call the entire plan into doubt.
“How can we teach with a gun in one hand and a book in another?” All Primary Schools Teachers Association president Malik Khalid Khan.
Abaseen Yusufzai, head of the Pashto department at Islamic College University, said: “This is the stupidest and most illogical thing that has happened in Pashtun society in living memory.”
“Women provide moral support, food and water to our warriors,” Yusufzai continued. “But never in our history have they been required to take up arms. It suggests that the men have lost their nerve, and the courage to fight.”
Security experts expressed skepticism about the ability of teachers to hold back Taliban militants, who are often primed with drugs when they wage suicide assaults.
However, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, which is controlled by firebrand opposition politician Imran Khan’s party, said it has little choice but to use drastic measures.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Minister for Education and Information Mushtaq Ghani said the province’s 65,000 police officers were not enough to secure its 45,000 schools, colleges and universities.
“This is an extraordinary time,” he said last week. “We don’t want teachers to take up guns, but it is necessary in the circumstances.”
In addition to the possibility of armed teachers, the authorities have ordered schools to raise boundary walls and hire armed security guards — expensive measures that many schools said they cannot afford.
Teachers themselves said they are conflicted — uncomfortable at the prospect of carrying a firearm, yet haunted by memories of the bloodshed at the Army Public School in December.
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