The women of Swat who remained largely oppressed during the rule of the Taliban are gradually breaking free from archaic traditions and stepping out into the world. From the valley’s first-ever female lawyer to the first-ever female jirga to a Nobel winner, Swat’s women are not ones to let misfortune determine their fate.
The valley can now add yet another name to its list of valiant women, Gul-e-Khandana. This 42-year-old determined schoolteacher from Sijban—a remote village once overrun with militants—has been beating the odds to empower women with the skills to turn their lives around.
The public schoolteacher and social worker had devoted her time to focus on education for girls as well as teaching women how to sew and embroider.
Khandana at her training centre in Sijban village. PHOTO: FAZAL KHALIQ/EXPRESS
Since Khandana set up a training centre in Sijban village in 2004, more than 2,000 women have benefited from it and are earning for themselves to supplement their family’s income.
Khandana’s village was once a stronghold of militants; they marched in every street, banning education for women and torching girls schools. This was before the army intervened and cleared Swat of militants in a large-scale operation.
A life fraught with risk
Khandana tells The Express Tribune hundreds of women were widowed during militancy in Upper Swat. “Most of them work in the houses of rich families and only get two meals a day. I thought if they learn some skills, they will be able to earn for their families with honour.”
According to Khandana, women in the area are completely dependent on men because they are uneducated and have no practical skills to be able to earn for themselves. However, after learning crafts in Khandana’s centre, a lot of women have been earning enough money to fulfil the basic needs of their families with ease.
“Some of them even earn at par with men and live with respect,” she says proudly.
But her mission to empower women and educate children also exposed her to danger.
She received several threats from militants warning her to stop teaching at the public school. “They would say whoever is doing a government job is a kafir and tell me to give it up,” she says, talking about the time the Taliban ruled the valley.
She still receives threatening letters telling her to “stop these activities or be ready to face severe consequences”, but Khandana remains undeterred. “This work gives me a lot of satisfaction and I will keep doing it till my last breath.”
Stitching up a new life
One of Khandana’s trainees, 35-year-old widow Rabia tells The Express Tribune that before she met the teacher, she used to work as a domestic employee for a rich family. “They only gave me two meals and hand-me-down clothes. But, since I started sewing, I have been earning enough money to feed and educate my four children,” she says. According to Rabia, the craft comes in handy mostly during Eid seasons as she gets more orders which means more money that can be set aside as savings.
Khandana has already worked with UN-Habitat, USAID Small Grants and US Ambassador’s Fund Programme to impart skills training and provide necessary equipment to impoverished women in her area.
Gender and conflict
After assisting thousands of women in her village, the social worker wants to extend her work to other areas and reach out to more women. “I want to open an office in war-affected regions where women need the most support,” she says.
A strong believer of equal rights, Khandana believes lack of education and practical skills is the main reason behind the violation of women’s rights in rural areas. “Without education and any useful skill, women are not aware of their rights and become entirely dependent on men. Thus men feel they have the right to treat them any way they like.”
“But when women are aware of their rights and can earn on their own, no man can mistreat them. They will be treated equally in the society and will live with dignity,” she says.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2014.
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