This is the last episode in our four-part series leading up to the CIES 2017 Symposium. In the past three episodes, we have talked about decolonizing knowledge and innovating comparative and international education primarily from within the USA. But what does decolonization look like in other countries?

Today we focus on Pakistan. My guest is Shenila Khoja-Moolji. She researches and writes about the interplay of gender, race, religion, and power in transnational contexts. In the May 2017 supplement of the Comparative Education Review, she wrote an article on teacher professional development in Pakistan.

Shenila has also learned to navigate the difficult and at times imperial terrain of international education development.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  is currently a visiting scholar at the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality and Women at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Forging the Ideal Educated Girl, which will be published by the University of California Press in June 2018.

Citation: Khoja-Moolji, Shenila, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 92, podcast audio, October 23, 2017.

Transcript, translation, resources:


Will Brehm  2:46
Shenila Khoja-Moolji, welcome to FreshEd.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  2:48
Thank you for having me.

Will Brehm  2:50
So in 2015, you were in Pakistan to conduct a three day workshop on teaching with teachers. Can you tell me a little bit about this experience?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  3:02
Sure. To answer this question, I have to provide a little bit of context around how this project emerged. I’m originally from Southern Pakistan and I have worked with local organizations there for the past several years on issues related to educational development. A couple of years ago, before this teaching workshop happened, I obtained a grant to do a human rights education camp for adolescent girls in the community where I actually grew up. The camp went really well. There was zero attrition. We used materials in the Urdu language in order to contextualize the learning. And we also had funding for the following year. However, after returning to the US, I started to reflect on the camp as a pedagogical project, particularly the kinds of subjects that it imagined and produced. And so, I started reflecting on questions around theorization of body, the human, empowerment, what constitutes a good life. All of this in the context of the human rights discourse. I also interrogated some of the assumptions regarding Muslims that are often implicit in the rights discourse as it relates to Pakistan. And so, this experience transformed me to actually thinking about how concepts that we deploy in our education projects or bodies of knowledge – human rights, in this case – they do not emerge in a vacuum. And they actually have a history and they have emerged in particular sociopolitical and geographical conditions. And so, since then, some of the key questions that have animated my work, they’ve been in relation to the politics of knowledge. So, what ideas do we center in our educational projects? What constitutes knowledge? Whose knowledges do we see as worthy of transmission? Whose knowledges are left out, and what are the consequences of that? And so, the next time and I was invited by the same community, I was really mindful of these politics of knowledge. And the next project was actually this set of professional development workshops for teachers from community-based schools from across local districts.

Will Brehm  5:15
And so how did you approach this workshop? Tangibly, what did you actually do that showed you were cognizant of these politics of knowledge?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  5:27
So, a CBS or a community-based school is actually a type of school that is run by the community. So, everything from infrastructure to teachers’ salaries and training, those are often taken care of by a board, which is often composed of volunteers that are drawn from the local community. These schools have emerged in many parts of Pakistan because either the government school is not providing quality education, or teachers are absent there, or private schools, the fees are really high. And so, community-based schools have emerged as a model to provide educational access, particularly in poor communities. So, you also observe a lot of transnational organizations such as USAID, for example. They have also set up such schools, but then they leave the schools to their own devices when their period of engagement ends. And so, given how poor these communities are, where the schools are, many CBS schools are underfunded. And this often also means they don’t have funds to train their teachers. And so, I was invited by a civil society organization that tries to address the needs of some such community-based schools in the local area. They approached me and wanted me to train teachers in jadeed, that’s the Urdu term for modern, and new, which is nya, teaching techniques. And so I’ve no doubt that because of my education in teaching in the US, I was seen as affording these insights which might be “modern”, and this desire for Western knowledges or westward orientation, in fact, is a consequence of an active erasure of non-Eurocentric knowledges in these parts of the world. So, these are intricately linked with processes of colonization and imperialism. And so, when I was invited, I saw this as an opportunity to interrogate the very premise that educators from the West have superior knowledges, and they’re the ones who are supposed to come in and impart this unilaterally to local teachers. And so, my hope was to figure out, with the teachers, a few techniques that might center the teachers as knowledge producers. I also tried to curate some examples of how the teachers could re-engage with the local environment and actually learn about the present moment of coloniality as well. So those were the broader objectives of the camp.

Will Brehm  8:02
And what did you learn? I mean, how easy is it to navigate this politics of knowledge where you are assumed by the organization to hold this modern knowledge that you can instill on people who have “non modern” ways of thinking, or traditional ways of thinking, but you’re also trying to basically not follow that paradigm. You are trying to recognize the local histories and the value of local knowledge. So that must have been a very tricky position to navigate as you went through this workshop.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  8:41
Right. So, I think the most difficult part was the early pushback, where I tried to de-center myself and tried to create interactive educational sessions where the teachers might be leading components of the workshops themselves. During the workshop, there was lots of group discussions. Teachers were actually trying to address each other’s issues rather than looking to me for answers. And so, in creating some of those moments, I did receive a little bit pushback because the assumption was that I would be didactic and instruct on the issues that were key for that community, or what I was advised to do. But because of my long-term engagement with this particular community, this particular organization, I was able to convince. And I also have to be honest – I had much more latitude than somebody else would have had, because of this prior relationship. And so, I think that’s another key when we think about sustainability; I have to also be cognizant of the fact that this sort of affordance was provided to me because of my background in this community. And so, there was pushback, but then I was able to convince folks that this might be a way for us to create a more sustainable structure for these community-based teachers. The other underlying logic, that must have informed the organization is also the fact that these teachers actually live fairly far away, and local community run faith-based organizations are also always struggling for resources. And so if there is a possibility to create communities of empowerment that actually might exist independently of a center, that probably is also welcomed by these organizations as well, because they’re actually trying to create the sort of support and don’t have to be the people who are actually providing all of these services. So, to move away from the service delivery model. So, I think that may have also informed their decision to let me do this workshop.

Will Brehm  11:01
So, what did you actually say to some of these community members to convince them?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  11:08
Initially, frankly it wasn’t beyond just talking about how I would structure the day. So, this workshop was supposed to be three to four days, and I provided the agenda for the first day. And then by the end of the day, they actually saw, because the organizers actually attended the workshops themselves; they were also educators. And so, we did this technique of the Critical Friends community, where we modify the model that we that might be used here in at least Western context to create communities that might come around interest or location, etc. And then the teacher is actually pitched a problem. And the problem was solved by other teachers. And then we had presentations at the end. And so just a performance of it all was convincing enough to let us do some of the work that we were trying to do, including critiquing some other structures, state structures, local structures, the patriarchal family, etc. that also inhibit teachers’ access. And I think a lot of these learnings, a lot of these critiques, are part of our everyday vocabulary; we talk about them. I think the only different thing might have just been to do it in a forum with like, 70 people. So, I don’t think that this is new. I think when the oppressed actually know often about their oppression and they actually understand some of the systems and policies that marginalize them. So, I don’t think this is new, it was just a space for them to come together and talk about it in a larger setting.

Will Brehm  12:43
So, what sort of forces and of oppression were you able to discuss in this forum using these, what did you call it? Critical Friends community? Or what I guess in the US is called the Learning Community model. So, what sort of forms of oppression were you able to draw out of this group and discuss and reflect on?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  13:06
One of the things that we talked about was hierarchies of knowledges. So, if you think about knowledge as ecologies and we’re talking about how ideas are related to each other, and how there are hierarchies of these ideas. And so, one of the things that actually the students came up with was a critique of some of the modules on religion that marginalized minority interpretations of Islam. And so, in my article for this symposium, I actually have a photograph of a presentation that was actually given by some of the teachers towards the end where they try to rewrite the particular module, paying attention to the ways in which they might actually think of Islam as composed of communities of interpretations, and what might their teaching look like. I think they were sixth or seventh grade teachers. And how they would actually teach it if they were to revise the module. And so, they actually spend that entire day thinking about this sort of hierarchy, thinking about how particular knowledges are centered in curriculum and then trying to enact a sort of revision within their small community of friends to create a new module.

Will Brehm  14:25
So, do you think in Pakistani context, a lot of the knowledge structures that you said are hierarchical, does this come from the colonial experience in the country?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  14:37
I think some of it really does because if you think about the institution of mass schooling, if you look at the past century, it has become the dominant space of learning. In the context of Muslim South Asia, this institution was developed by the British colonizers. Of course, this meant that the learning communities and local institutions of learning had to emulate some of the models such as the fact that there has to be a curriculum, the fact that people have to be enrolled in classes according to your biological age, a certification, for example. All of these different models work across each other and so in that way, the institution of school actually does represent … it has roots in the British colonial interventions in the missionary and the English schools that were set up. But then, of course, the state took ownership. When Pakistan was established in 1947, it was the state’s responsibility to provide access to education. And so, you have this massive effort for teacher training and also building school infrastructure. But what actually has happened is the sort of fragmentation of learning, so you learn particular kinds of things in schools which are supposed to make you eligible for particular kinds of jobs, and then other forms of learning. So, in my article, I also talk about religious ways of knowing, Muslim ways of knowing. It’s one of the critiques, and I talk about that actually in my book a lot more. About how religious ways of knowing have been either marked as irrelevant, or they have been moved into after school programs or the family’s responsible for your moral instruction. So, schools don’t explicitly take ownership of that, even though, of course, schools are very much part of that project. And so, I think if we were to think about it from the perspective of the particular model of schooling, then yes, we can trace it to British colonial influence. But then I think we have to move into thinking about new institutions, elite institutions, including the state and the institution of family, and how those institutions have reinscribed particular kinds of learning. Where do they assert their power in order to shape the young child? And so, this contestation, I feel in the context of Pakistan, continues even today. There is lots of debate on curriculum in Pakistan. All sorts of different entities are trying to assert their visions for what an ideal child is, what an ideal girl is. The state is part of it, the institution, the family is part of it, the religious ulama are part of it. And so, it remains a very dense and contested conversation.

Will Brehm  17:38
Right. So, the knowledge politics now include the state and the family. Does it also include, in your opinion, these civil society organizations, or the community-based schooling organizations, or just more broadly, educational development, which is including people from around the world who are coming into poor communities to help them better themselves or their education systems in particular ways, and coming in with a very prescribed notion of what good is. Is this included in the new institutions that are colonizing knowledge in a way?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  18:25
I would say so. Yes. Because as I had mentioned earlier, the first thing I did as a young master’s student who wanted to do something good, was to apply for a grant on human rights education. Which by the way, if you talk about girls and human rights, there’s a lot of money in the US here, particularly if you say that you’re going to Pakistan. And so, it wasn’t really hard for me to get the grants. I mean there are entire programs for human rights education at universities. So, there is a cadre of practitioners and experts that are produced who are expected to take this knowledge and go in the world. So, the institution itself is complicit in creating these sorts of channels for transmitting knowledges about particular regimes, such as the human rights regime. And so, I would say that even I was complicit in terms of applying for that grant and then trying to use this without actually reflecting on some other underlying assumptions. To go in another part of the world and to implement some of these projects. And to answer your question, yes, there are lots of organizations, there are lots of practitioners, well meaning, who do enter educational development work but we also actually have to think about the politics of the work that we’re doing, to actually think about the ways in which we might be reinscribing some of the global norms. In addition, the state, for example, the MDGs, SDGs, for example, the ways in which transnational agendas are set up, that also influences the priorities of the state. So, if girls’ enrollment is the biggest thing, then you will see that even the Pakistani state emphasizes that. You will have a lot of funding for that. So transnational aid workers, practitioners, will focus on that. Even local organizations will try to move their agendas because everyone needs the funding. So, I think from that perspective, even those norm setting organizations are complicit in how education unfolds in local context. I’ll tell you something interesting. I was in Pakistan this summer … These days, as you can imagine, countering violent extremism is the big funding stream. And so, I was speaking with a friend of mine, and she does work in a completely different space. She works with a group of what might be constituted as “at risk” kids, and she works on art, etc. And since this is the only big stream of money coming in, foreign stream of money, a lot of people are just reshaping what they’re doing to say they’re doing CVE work, because that’s where the money is. Now I don’t know if people continue to do that, which they were doing originally, but I’m sure this sort of knowledge regime puts pressure on the ways in which we think about what we’re doing in local settings as well.

Will Brehm  21:46
So, on the one hand, you’re saying that this education development industry is complicit in limiting knowledge or colonizing knowledge. And, of course, the funding structures are a big part of how that works. And on the other hand, you’re saying that you are trying to work through this education development industry to decolonize knowledge with the workshop being a good example. It just seems like it’s a really difficult environment to navigate because you must reflect on yourself and think, “I am complicit in some of these practices that I’m critiquing at the same time”. So, I just wonder, how do you do it? How do you recognize your own positionality as been problematic at points but continuing to work through this industry that you find so problematic?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  22:38
That’s an excellent question. There is a professor at Columbia, Hamid Dabashi, and I had this conversation with him once and he said something really interesting that I’ve kind of taken to heart. So, at that point, I was writing an article on human rights and just actually thinking about the portrayal of Muslims in the human rights imaginary, particularly in Western media, and how Muslim men in particular are featured in that discourse. And I was looking at some issues at that point that were happening in Pakistan in which I saw that the language of women’s rights was perhaps the most productive language for a local group to advance some of the things that they wanted. And so, one of the things that Dabashi talked … I mean, we had this conversation, and he shared that we, as scholars and practitioners, we move about in different circles within different structures and it’s okay for us to critique a human rights discourse, but also be willing to use it strategically when it can actually advance the well-being of the women, the people that we’re actually concerned with. And so right now, I’m very comfortable with writing an academic paper on human rights discourse aimed at a particular academic audience, or even writing in Western media discourses, but then go and stand on the streets of Karachi, or Islamabad or Hyderabad, and do a protest for the rights of a woman for whom this project actually strategically might create some space. And so, I think we have to be able to work within the structures. And I think it’s possible to do both as a specific.

Will Brehm  24:31
Yes, so they can be contradictory, but you can hold that contradiction in your hand.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  24:35
Yes, and we have to strategically deploy the discourses and move around in these spaces.

Will Brehm  24:41
Now, do you ever think that some of these ideas that you are working to decolonize knowledge would ever be taken up by some of the big players, some of the big institutions in the development industry, like the World Bank? Or even USAID for that matter? Is this a possibility, or is it just going to have to be individuals strategically working within those structures to push for slightly alternative notions of what knowledge is or could be?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  25:11
One of the things, I think, is that if they’re taken by these transnational … I think at the core of some of the critique is a critique of networks of privilege. It’s a critique of the ways in which unequal relationships of power are continued through educational institutions, through other sorts of ventures, through circulation of capital, etc. So, I think at the end of the day, it calls for redistribution and a disruption of status quo, which I don’t know if that is something that these organizations are in the business for. I think that’s not what they’re setting out to do, which is fine. What I’m actually concerned about is that some of the time, the terminologies that the critiques that scholars come up with, they are assimilated by large organizations, and then they are siloed into a program. Like the World Bank, for example, has a bunch of indigenous programs focusing on indigenous knowledges of farmers, for example. So, I think there are ways in which these critiques can be co-opted, and then their political edge gets blunt. So, I think that’s the thing that I’m most concerned about that the ideas can become a buzzword, they can be one program or two within a portfolio, but then not an approach that actually informs the entire development regime that we’re thinking about. So, from that perspective, then, we might be safe to say that for these towards projects, you either need to have authorizing environments like I had. This particular civil society organization that has similar commitments who may have been nervous earlier, but then actually provided the space to do something innovative in relation to teacher ed in the ways in which conceptualize there, or you need to just have educators who create these everyday disruptions within these networks. So those are some other ways I think this might continue.

Will Brehm  27:28
Yes. So, to go back to the workshop that you organized. I know the word “success” might not be the most appropriate, but were you able to be successful in the kind of intent that you had going in? Have you been back to that community since doing the workshop, and have you seen anything change?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  27:53
I think the first thing, and my personal objective was to encourage a discussion around the present moment of coloniality. So, I wanted for us to be able to develop an understanding of colonialism that moves beyond the classic colonization and to include some of the analysis to understand how we continue to exist in colonial situations. And so, this meant being able to recognize and talk about the contemporary systems of exploitation and domination. So that was my key, at least for the first day; that was my main agenda for us to be able to talk about. And I would say I was pleased that we did create a community where participants were able to speak about some of the ways in which, not only within school structures, but outside of it too. Within their different communities of belonging, some people talked about the institution of the family, some people talk about within religious communities, others talked about the nation state. So, depending on wherever any person’s investment was, there was a sort of robust discussion on that topic. And so, I would say that that may be constituted as a “success”, in quotes. And I think that the communities of friends may have been a project that might continue because we very intentionally created these communities of people who could actually meet. Because the teachers were coming from all over the district, we had to make sure that people who lived in the same area or who had some sort of way of seeing each other once a month were paired together. And so that’s another thing that may have continued, but I have no way of knowing if they are meeting. I think that’s something I also have to think about in terms of how do you stay in touch with these groups. I think it would be great to do this sort of workshop every year, to at least be able to bring people together again, and to build on some of the things that we talked about earlier. But as I said, this is a voluntary organization. I was a volunteer, so I think that often means that we are dependent on our own financial resources. The food, for example, was donated by a local publisher. A lot of this is done by volunteers and so I think all of those pieces have to come together to create these projects, but particularly people who are from far flung poor communities; having somebody donate money for the buses, for example. So, all of this, these are small things, but it can mean the difference between actually creating a workshop again or not. So, I think sustainability from that perspective is an issue. But I think there are many organizations in Pakistan, who are invested in this type of work. And so, if formalized, I wouldn’t be surprised that there might be additional ways of doing this.

Will Brehm  31:10
And so, let me ask you about this upcoming symposium. What are you excited about going into the two-day conference or two day symposium?

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  31:24
So, first of all, meeting my friends. That’s the best thing about these conferences, I have to be honest about it. The other thing also is I think there is a focus on methods this time; thinking about comparative international education. So, I think that’s an interesting space where you’re only thinking about the ways in which we’re doing this type of work. And then, of course, having these case studies which showcase some of these ideas. Even though I’m talking about this paper, I’ve been for the past year actually writing my book on the figure of the Muslim girl, the educated girl and it’s a genealogy. And so, I’ve been particularly concerned in thinking about how can we combine historical archival material with case study methodologies to actually create these methods of thinking about education that have this sort of long term view, but are also then grounded in local communities. And so, I think it would be nice for me to actually be able to talk to people about that, too. So, I’m looking forward to those conversations.

Will Brehm  32:32
And when you do publish your book, please come back on FreshEd and tell us all about it.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  32:37
Yes, it’s in June 2018.

Will Brehm  32:39
Perfect. Well, Shenila Khoja-Moolji, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It was a pleasure to talk today and best of luck at the conference.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji  32:49
Thank you. It was nice to meet you, too.

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