If it weren’t for the support of their father and the persistence of their mother, Farida Afridi and Noor Zia Afridi would not be able to read a single word of this article. But today, the two are not only final year students of MSc in Gender studies and holders of MBA degrees, but are also determined champions of women’s education and empowerment.
Farida and Noor’s long struggle against discriminatory tribal customs started when they were school children. “After we completed our primary education, our male family members wanted us to stop going to school,” says Farida. But the girls’ parents were adamant that they would continue their education.
Since then, equal status for women and children’s rights have been issues close to their hearts. It was to win these rights that the two established the Society for Appraisal and Women Empowerment in Rural Areas (SAWERA) in the Jamrud subdivision of Khyber Agency in December 2008.
“The government is oblivious of the general attitude of tribesmen towards women and the extent of inequality in our patriarchal society. This pushed us to start a struggle for their empowerment,” says Farida, sitting in her well-furnished office in Peshawar.
Interestingly, though their struggle is for women’s rights, their inspiration was a male student-cum-social worker named Laal Jan. “We used to see Laal Jan as a student, doing social work in our village. His dedication provided us with the impetus to step into this field,” says Farida.
It wasn’t a smooth ride. Their parents may have been in favour of their education, but seeing their daughters transform into pioneering social workers was something else. They faced tough resistance when they told their family about the path they had chosen for themselves — to promote women’s rights by launching an NGO. Eventually, Laal Jan came to the rescue, convincing the girls’ parents to support them after several long conversations. “I told them that there was no harm in women working in the field,” recalls Jaan. “Far from earning the girls a bad name, their social work would actually increase their families’ prestige, if they served the local community well.”
“We told our parents that we would work in accordance with our religious and cultural traditions, assuring them that we would never let the family honour suffer because of our line of work. Finally, they agreed,” says chadar-clad Noor, who covers half her face while working in the office and in the field.
As for Lal Jaan, he was not only the initial inspiration for SAWERA and a key mediator during its establishment — his association with the organisation has turned out to be a long term one. Presently, he is volunteering as a technical advisor. “With the exception of eight women volunteering for SAWERA, more than half of the 20-member staff consists of tribal women,” says Lal Jaan, who is of opinion that the local staff gives SAWERA an edge over all others in the field.
Before the establishment of SAWERA, says Noor Zia, “Only men were leading NGOs in Jamrud. Rigid tribal customs prevented them from approaching women and addressing their concerns with ease. Ours is the only functional organisation in the area which is led by women, and works for the welfare of women and children free of traditional constraints.”
Since its inception, SAWERA has held a number of awareness sessions for locals with regards to women and children’s rights. Highly attuned to local sentiments, SAWERA’s policy of respecting tradition has paid dividends. “We are well respected in the community…everyone knows our family background and our struggle for this cause has been well-received,” says Farida. “Keeping local tradition in mind, we cover ourselves in chadar and hold our activities inside houses — rather than out in the open — which encourage the local people to cooperate with us.” They also avoid implementing projects on controversial issues like AIDS and family planning, which may incite the local community against their cause.
While local customs are a challenge that SAWERA has overcome beautifully, local militancy is another story altogether. Like all other organisations engaged in this field, SAWERA occasionally gets threats from militants. Preferring to be part of the solution, it held a workshop on peace in the region last year in which more than 50 women participated. “Women can play an active role in countering terrorism and militancy,” says Noor. “By educating women, we can prevent their sons from becoming militants and by educating children we can enable them to choose a better future for themselves.”
At present SAWERA is running three Information Technology (IT) centres in Jamrud, with segregated classes for male and female students. “Half the students are female — they were enrolled by their parents only after our colleagues addressed their reservations about sending their daughters to the IT centre,” Noor reveals. The project aims to equip students with enough computer skills to enable them to secure jobs.
“One of the primary objectives of SAWERA is the financial empowerment of women which is essential for their self reliance and independence,” says Lal Jaan proudly. And most of SAWERA’s projects focus on just that. The NGO opened two garment shops with the help of a donor, which are successfully being run by two poor women from their homes in Gul Rehman village. Also, during 2009, SAWERA helped establish six male and female Community Based Organisations (CBO) each, later linking one of the female CBOs with an international donor, which is now running a vocational training centre for women in Tedi Bazaar Jamrud.
“A number of women are making money out of it, while others are learning the skill of sewing and embroidery,” says Farida.
Farida and Noor Zia earn a small amount of money from their work to support their studies and to sustain their NGO when they have no running projects. “We don’t give financial support to our families, neither do we ask them to support us,” says Farida, who along with Noor, enjoys financial independence.
In an effort to disprove stereotypes, Farida and Noor are paving the way for many others and have cleverly surmounted the multiple challenges of being women in tribal society. Now, they want to reach out to more and more people, by extending their operation to the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA. “This is just the beginning … we still have a long way to go to change the plight of women in these areas,” says Noor.
The two girls, who started with a personal struggle to acquire an education, have actually begun a women’s movement which may well have far-reaching and radical consequences in Pakistan’s tribal belt.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 11th, 2011.