Mrs Zeenat, 56, has spent her life to break the chains of gender inequality and opening the doors to education and a brighter future for generations of girls to come in her community.
Life is especially difficult for women in the Sindh province in southeast Pakistan. Here, women are particularly handicapped by the entrenched feudal system and religious fundamentalists which often denies them their basic rights and almost never treats men and women as equal. There are some women, however, who manage to break through the rigid mould created for women in this area, Mrs. Zeenat, 56, is one of them.
Despite belonging to a feudal landlord family, not only did she get the opportunity to receive an education, becoming one of the roughly 34 per cent of women in rural areas who are able to read, she also had the opportunity to work.
“A woman in my village could imagine anything, but not going out of home to get education,”
From a young age, Zeenat noticed that boys and girls were treated differently in her family and in her community. “I was curious to see my brothers and other boys to go to schools,” she remembers. At that time, education for girls was almost unthinkable. “A woman in my village could imagine anything, but not going out of home to get education,” she recalls.
Realizing that education was the key, Zeenat took matters into her own hands, when she was just 7 years old. “I thought to break the chain and asked my father to enrol me in school,” says Zeenat. “I got a resistance [at first] as it was against the status quo,” she remembers.
Thanks to her uncle, who was a lawyer and had understood that the only way to bring societal level reforms to their community was to educate both boys and girls, Zeenat’s parents eventually agreed and enrolled her in school. Her sister, on the other hand, was more content and although Zeenat challenged the status quo and went to school, she stayed home.
All those days spent in school taught me a lesson and I didn’t want to stop with my education only,”
Zeenat was the first girl in her village to receive a matriculation degree (high school degree). But, she didn’t stop there, “All those days spent in school taught me a lesson and I didn’t want to stop with my education only,” she says. She was determined to change the traditional system and wanted to see the chains for all young girls unlocked and the door to education opened wide. She knew the best way to help other girls from her community get an education was to become a teacher herself. She did not stop and continued to break there. Instead she became a school teacher herself knowing that if a feudal landlord’s daughter was the teacher, other parents would have no objection to sending their daughters to school. She was right. Today, 90 per cent of girls from her community are enrolled in school.
“My village is on the track of prosperity,” she says. “Now women were no more the vulnerable groups and no one can ignore them,” she says proudly.
After the situation had improved in her village, Zeenat was married. She moved to a different village, Dur Muhammad Thaleem where she found the situation to be much the same as where she grew up. Instead of being sad because she left the area where so much progress had been made, Zeenat found purpose. “Perhaps I was chosen to break the chains and my destiny wanted me to come [here] to Dur Muhammad Thaheem, where things were almost same as they happened to be in my village,” she says.
Although educated and an experienced teacher Zeenat met new obstacles in her life as a wife. “My husband resisted me to continue my job,” recalls Zeenat. “But, I had learned to break the chains, so I took a strong stand and asked him to not to force me from doing the job,” she expressed.
Also a feudal landlord, her husband worried what people would think about his wife working. She reminded him that her father was also a landlord and he had permitted it and convinced him of her vision. “I told him that, I am working for a right cause… I was lucky that I got a man who could understand the viewpoint and allowed me to work,” says Zeenat.
Mrs, Zeenat wrapped in white doppatta (scarf), is presenting her thoughts during a training organized by World Vision to bring to bring reforms in education sector.
“I still remember the day when I joined my duty at the army cantonment school )there was no girls’ school in my in-law’s village). When principal of the school came to know about my husband, it took him in surprise that he allowed me to work,” says Zeenat.
Over the years, Zeenat’s husband also helped her further girls’ education and equality. He even helped lobby local politicians about the issue and was able to get approval for a separate school for girls in their community.
Believing much of the needed transformations had been accomplished, when her husband died eight years ago, she left her job as a teacher so she could focus on the needs of her two children—a boy and a girl—and to assume many of the responsibilities in the community her husband previously attended to.
“I began to think that everything has been settled now and people of Dur Muhammad Thaheem have begun to understand the importance and equality of a woman,” she remembers. “But, this was not the case,” she admits.
Mrs, Zeenat wrapped in white doppatta (scarf), is havingdiscussion with World Vision staff on ways to bring reforms in education sector.
While some initial steps had been taken, to offer education to girls, etc… there were many entrenched beliefs and values that were not as easily seen, at least at first. “When World Vision started its education project, ‘My Teacher is My Role Model (MTMRM)’ and asked to form Parents, Teachers, and Students Associations (PTSAs) with monthly meetings many were reluctant to allow their females to sit in co-gatherings or to go out of the village [to see how other schools function],” shares Zeenat. Seeing this helped Zeenat realize her work was not finished. “This thing rung the bell for me and made me conscious that although, women are enjoying basic rights, they still are not treated equally.”
“I convinced them to allow their women to participate in World Vision’s activities as they (World Vision) are working for the wellbeing of our children,” remembers Zeenat. “They agreed to allow their women to attend sessions and trainings, on a condition that I accompany them,” she says.
Zeenat continues encourages women in her community to attend World Vision’s sessions and obtain training in new teaching methodologies. Zeenat believes in involving mothers to enhance the academic interests of children. She urged the community to let women regularly attend the monthly meetings conducted by World Vision and to allow them to regularly communicate with teachers to ensure that their children are making progress at school.
This story is written to show the many obstacles women face and highlight their need to take charge of their lives and struggle for their independence and equality. It also shows that they need to have restless motivation and commitment towards their goals in order to create an impartial environment where their talents, aptitudes and creativity can flourish and where they are appreciated as human beings.
Zeenat’s story is just one example to let other women know that real power lies within them and if they are determined they can bring the inspirational change not only for them but for the generations to come.