‘Malala of Sindh’ fights to regain her school

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Khanzadi Baloch and her husband Mehboob Ali Baloch speak to Arab News. (AN photo)
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Khanzadi Baloch and her husband Mehboob Ali Baloch speak to Arab News. (AN photo)
Updated 25 February 2018
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‘Malala of Sindh’ fights to regain her school

KARACHI: Almost a decade ago, Khanzadi Baloch gathered a group of young girls under a tree in her village on the border of Sindh and Balochistan and began familiarizing them with basic alphabets and numbers. Her efforts turned out to be an instant success since there were no girls’ schools in her little hamlet — or in seven nearby villages — of Tehsil Garhi Khairo in Sindh’s Jacobabad district. Still only a teenager, she managed to set up an elementary school, attracting a significant number of students.
Baloch had a passion for education and, with an intermediate degree in pre-medical, was arguably the most well-read person in town. She singlehandedly taught these girls and refused to take a penny from them since she knew they came from an impoverished background.
“Nearly a year after I set up the school, an official from the education department, Hajji Maqsood Ahmed Brohi, saw us sitting under the tree,” she recalled while talking to Arab News. “When I told him my story, he said that I was doing commendable job.”
Six months after the chance encounter, Brohi made a surprise phone call to share the exciting news. “He told me that he had got approval to build a school using World Bank money,” she said. Her family provided land for the education institute, which was later built at a cost of Rs7.6 million.
Baloch and her family were impatiently waiting for completion of construction work, but they had different plans in mind. While she was dreaming of a primary school with the best education facilities, her uncle, Mir Dil Khan, and brother, Abdul Waheed, were secretly planning to convert the building into a village courtyard for greater social prestige.
“‘Your job is done,’ my brother told me. ‘We used you since we wanted a cement building’,” Baloch quoted her brother. Her entire village was a small collection of mud houses and a cement structure was nothing short of a novelty.
“I love my students,” she said in a faint voice. “I cried my heart out. Even today, the girls call me and say they want to go back to the school. But my family robbed us of our future. And this was done in connivance with the local sardar [feudal lord].”
Baloch had no option but to put her foot down. “I called up Brohi, who likened me to Malala [Yousafzai, the activist for female education] and said that I was being punished for creating awareness among the young girls of Sindh. He then called the district police officer, who sent his representative to our village.”
That only added to her miseries. “When I came home, my brother started beating me and then forcibly sent me to my maternal aunt’s residence where I lived for a few months.”
Her maternal uncle, Nawab Ali Baloch, took her to Shikarpur, another district in Sindh. Initially, she thought it was to let things cool down, but later the arrangement turned into an illegal confinement. “My uncle locked me in a room and took my cellphone,” she said. “However, I managed to make a call to the police helpline through my younger cousin’s phone.”
The police took Baloch and her uncle to their office. Subsequently, the local judge sent her to Darul Aman, a shelter for women, in Larkana and jailed her uncle. “My uncle’s wife begged me to change my statement,” she recalled. “After a great deal of emotional blackmailing, I retracted my statement which paved the way for my uncle release.”
Her family also asked her to come with them, but Baloch feared for her life and approached the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). She also reached out to a trusted cousin, Mahboob Ali Baloch, a Sindh police constable.
“We verified her story through our local network,” said Asad Iqbal Butt, of the HRCP.
The rights group gave her support after she left the shelter and moved to Karachi. In view of local sensitivities, however, its officials recommended that she marry a relative. This was to avoid the dangerous allegation of hurting her family honor, an accusation frequently made in such circumstances that can lead to “honor killings” in rural Sindh and other parts of the country. As a result, Baloch decided to marry her cousin who stood by her side.
“We married on July 4, 2015, yet we were declared as kari [guilty of undermining family honor]. This was done through a jirga that was arranged by the area’s sardar,” Mahboob Ali Baloch told Arab News.
“He had also attacked my family twice and, after their escape to Karachi, grabbed their cattle, land and other possessions that they had left behind,” he said.
Despite being part of the Sindh police, he lives in fear and changes his address every few months.
Although she is hiding in Karachi, Khanzadi Baloch, now the mother of a five-month-old child, has not given up efforts to take back her school. She has knocked at every door, and regularly visits HRCP’s office for help.
“The HRCP has been writing to the Inspector General of Police and other relevant officials, demanding protection for Baloch, her husband and son,” Butt said. “At one point, they had planned to return home after police assurance,” he said, “but local sympathizers revealed that a plan had been hatched to kill the couple.”
The HRPC also sought help from influential politicians, though, as Butt recalled, they subtly communicated that “the family and the local feudal had over 5,000 votes.”
“Such acts of injustices are daily occurrences, but with the effort of the provincial administration of Sindh, especially woman parliamentarians, such crimes can be decreased,” claimed Saira Shahliani, a female lawmaker of the Pakistan Peoples Party, who was elected on women’s reserved seat from Garhi Khairo.
When asked about this case, Shahliani said she had taken a personal interest in it. “When I heard about it, I went to her village where she was not present,” she said. “But I met with her parents, other family members and several other villagers. I also held a news conference in Jacobabad and assured them that I would support Khanzadi and will help her get justice.”
“In Karachi, I contacted her and she came to my house along with her husband,” she said. “She told me that she wanted to go back to her village. I talked to her parents, but they were not taking the responsibility of her husband’s family. According to them, her husband’s brothers-in-laws [brothers of his other wife] will kill both of them since they were powerful and had the support of the sardar.
“I talked to several influential people of the area, but no one was willing to take the responsibility. This was what I could do for her,” she said.
Asked why she did not involve the state, she said: “I went to senior superintendent of police of Jacobabad, Sajid Khokhar. He said that he had visited the village. When he heard that the school had been converted into the village courtyard, he had placed several restrictions on the use of the school. He also went to the women’s shelter to look for Khanzadi Baloch, but she had left by then.”
Meanwhile, there has been a change in Baloch’s hometown. The Sardar has passed away and his son, who is said to be educated, is at the helm of affairs. Although education sometimes fails to change the feudal mindset, the development has given Baloch and her husband new belief.
“We hope that he will do justice since I do not need anything,” she said. “I need a life and my school. That was my dream, and I want it back.”


Saudi ‘smart glove’ inventor thrives in the age of innovation

Updated 5 min 13 sec ago
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Saudi ‘smart glove’ inventor thrives in the age of innovation

  • Hadeel Ayoub is the founder of BrightSign, a London-based company specializing in assistive technology
  • BrightSign's signature product is a smart glove that can facilitate communication by individuals with speech disability

LONDON: Saudi inventor and tech innovator Hadeel Ayoub is giving people who can’t speak new hope — and a new voice.

The founder of London-based tech company BrightSign is the driving force behind a smart glove that allows individuals who are unable to speak to communicate by translating sign language into text and speech.

After more than four years’ work, Ayoub, a designer, programmer and researcher in human computer interaction, plans to launch the device later this year.

Some of the biggest beneficiaries will be families with children who have speech disabilities and want to be better connected through technology. The BrightSign glove will enable these children to become better signers and communicators, but can also be hooked up with a web app to provide instant translation in most languages.

The architecture of a BrightSign glove is relatively straightforward: Multiple sensors, embedded under an outer glove, track finger positions, hand orientation and dynamic movements. The hardware is contained inside a slender wristband.

Hand gestures are translated into text that appears on a screen embedded in the glove, and speech is made audible via a mini-speaker. The user can select the voice and speech language.


BIO

• Founder and chieftechnology officer, BrightSign

• Experienced lecturer, researcher and entrepreneur with experience in the higher education industry

• Skilled in innovation, creative coding, programming and design research

• Ph.D. in human-computer interaction and gesture recognition from Goldsmiths, University of London


Ayoub has been featured in Forbes magazine, tech programs on the BBC and Discovery channels, and has spoken at discussions organized by Britain’s Financial Times and Guardian newspapers. She has also taken part in a number of exhibitions with innovation and assistive technology as their themes.

Recalling the inspiration for the smart glove, the Saudi inventor said she was originally designing a device for an air-draw program — the air was the canvas, and the hands and fingers were the drawing tools. Her aim was to replace the mouse and keyboard with trackable wearable technology.

On the basis of her design, Ayoub was selected to represent her university at an IBM global hackathon in artificial intelligence for social care. She reprogrammed the glove to translate sign language and won the competition.

When news of the smart glove was circulated in the media, Ayoub’s inbox was flooded with inquiriesttt from parents wanting the glove for their children, from speech therapists for their patients, and from teachers for their students.

The tech innovator quickly realized there was a need for this kind of technology and decided to make it the focus of her Ph.D. research.

Hadeel Ayoub’s BrightSign smart glove allows people with speech disabilities to translate sign language into text and voice. (Reuters)

“I want to break the current barriers facing those who wish to broaden their experience with sign language beyond the current traditional method,” Ayoub said.

She believes that at least three improvements are urgently needed: Integrating children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms; equipping adults who have disabilities with technologies that will help them perform tasks as well as their peers manage; and making smart-glove devices available in public locations such as airports, shopping malls, government offices and hospitals to offer a smoother service to visitors with disabilities.

A global award winner for her technological innovation, Ayoub regularly tests and improves the BrightSign glove, which she describes as a work in progress.

“The glove has gone through multiple rounds of prototyping and testing. I have implanted the users’ feedback to develop hardware, software and design,” she said.

“It is now being used in six schools to help non-verbal children overcome their communication challenges in the classroom.”

Ayoub said that further studies would help her develop the final product. “I am now taking glove pre-orders on the BrightSign website,” she said.

The Saudi inventor said that she has always been “a progressive thinker and a dreamer of possibilities,” and described a childhood spent immersed in books rather than playing with dolls.

She remembers her family library with fondness and reminisces on quiet evenings spend reading.

As well as being an innovator, Ayoub is a mother who talks lovingly about her children.

“They are very much involved in the development phases of BrightSign,” she said. “I consider their opinions on the products designed for children. I always encourage them to do what they love since that would mean that they will excel in it.

“They get excited every time they see someone using BrightSign and they can see how it helps people live better.

“They also understand the concept of tech for good and aspire to work one day on technologies with a social impact.”

Ayoub sees herself as problem solver with an eye for technical detail, a kind of instinctive trouble-shooter. “When I attempt to solve a problem, I go through cycles of trial and error until I achieve a breakthrough,” she said.

“I encountered a number of problems that were unprecedented, so I wasn’t able to turn to a source or a reference. I guess this is what prompted me to get creative and think outside the box, which eventually put me on the innovation route.

“I find dead ends challenging. When someone tells me that something has never been done, it does not mean that it is not doable. On the contrary, it motivates me to keep going until I find a solution.”

As for the current model of innovation, Ayoub admires the global interconnectedness.

“The mindset now is collaborative rather than competitive,” Ayoub said.

“I am part of inventors’ groups in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region and the Middle East. Most of us got business training at some point in order to secure investment and go into production.”

I find dead ends challenging. It motivates me to keep going to find a solution.

Hadeel Ayoub

Being a innovator has been far from a walk in the park for Ayoub. She believes what really pushed her in her chosen field was her desire to learn something new in every degree she pursued, starting with design, then programming and, finally, technology.

“More often than not I find myself the only woman speaking at a tech conference or giving a tech talk at an event,” she said. “I am proud to represent my country in global exhibitions and am even prouder when I walk away with awards at competitions.

“I hope that I can inspire young girls to experiment with technology and use it to enhance their respective practices.

“I have created a ‘women in tech’ group where we have regular meetings to share our challenges and extend our support each other.”

Based on her experiences, Ayoub has a message for young Saudis: “This is the age of innovation and entrepreneurship. If what you are passionate about doesn’t exist as a field of knowledge, create it.

“Learn how to code. It will be useful in any career you pursue and will enable you to integrate technology into your practice.”