GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founders: An Interview with Olivia Curl and Lena Shareef

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Olivia Curl and Lena Shareef, the co-founders of GIRLWITHABOOK Movement. Both are graduates of American University in Washington, DC, and Lena a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. We sat down to discuss their upbringings, view on gender roles and feminism, and the role education has played in their lives and in the lives of girls across the United States.

RV: What is your family's background? What kind of environment (religious, cultural, geographic location, etc.) were you raised in?

OC: I grew up in Eugene, Oregon. My mom’s side of the family is from Portugal from the Azores Islands, so that side is very much the culture of Catholic Portuguese immigrants. My grandma got married when she was 16 and immigrated to the US, raised two kids by herself, and I’m very proud of that. So very much of my life is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in that regard. And then my dad’s side is very white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, military, conservative family. He’s a red head. So literally My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Except my mom would say with classier bridesmaid dresses.

I grew up in a conservative household. My parents have really grown and evolved in that regard, in terms of politics and values since my brother and I were little which is encouraging because I think my brother and I have driven that a lot. But I grew up in a really liberal town so that helped maintain some balance. But it also made me really good at arguing, because I would stand up for what my parents believed in. It made me a better arguer and it made me value challenging what I believe before making up my mind just to whatever the dominant discourse is. Because even though I’m super liberal, hard-core leftie now, I value that I’m able to value other people’s perspectives and see the genuine nuggets of where they’re coming from.

LS: I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. But when I was a year old, we moved to Karachi, Pakistan. My dad was working for Proctor & Gamble, and it’s very similar to being an army brat because you get moved around a lot. Karachi is where my first memories are—we lived there for five and a half years. Then when I was seven we moved to Kiev, Ukraine. We lived there for two years and that was a really fun time. From there we moved to Michigan. I was nine years old and that was the first time where I felt very different. We lived in suburb outside of Detroit, which was very white, Jewish, and there weren’t that many people of color. We lived there for six years. Middle school sucked. It was constant bullying. I still to this day don’t understand why. I think it was maybe because I was the new kid, I was different, and was best friends with a girl who was already an outcast. The bullying that you see in movies—that is exactly what I went through.

Then when I was 15 we moved back to Cincinnati, Ohio. I realized how segregated things were there. I remember one day after school was over I needed a ride home. I asked a friend of mine, and I knew she lived fairly close by. So I told her the route I usually took, and she was like, “I don’t like going through that area.” And I realized it was because it was a mainly black area.

One time we went to Skyline Chili, and I went with my white friend. We walked in and a hush fell over the place, and everyone turned and looked at me. I was the only person of color there. And I never ever wanted to go back. It was so weird. And now I will forever associate Skyline Chili, no matter how delicious it is, with that. And this was 2006/2007.

My family is Pakistani, and we’re Muslim. I have an older brother. Religion plays a big role in my life. My first memories are of growing up in a Muslim-majority country, in Pakistan. But I didn’t ever really think of my religious identity until I was in Ukraine and Michigan. You kind of grow up and you think everyone’s Muslim! In Pakistan we used to have this Imam come to our house every Friday and teach my brother and me how to read the Quran, which I hated. It was always some old dude who obviously couldn’t relate to a 5-year-old girl. He was a very nice man, I was just a brat.

And then in Ukraine my mom would, every week, have my brother and me sit down with her and she wanted to make sure that we could still read the Quran. And then in Michigan, I do remember my parents put us in a Sunday school, which sucked, because at that time it was when people were trying to build the structure of a Muslim Sunday School. It was random volunteers, and not enjoyable for me. I ended up not making any friends in Sunday school. I couldn’t relate to anyone.

As I got older, it was very much my mom who was the religious practicing one in my family. It was always important for my mom, and I think I would do it as sort of a favor to her. When I went to college in DC, that’s when I finally made other Muslim friends. I didn’t really have Muslim friends before college, other than my family. You know college; a lot of late night discussion, and you end up thinking about your identity so much. That’s when it became more of a choice, and this is what I’m doing for me.

RV: What is your view of gender roles? What has impacted or molded this view?

LS: When do you think you became a feminist?

OC: Oh, I became a feminist after we started GIRLWITHABOOK.

Evolution is important, right? I was raised in my immediate, nuclear family with the values of traditional gender roles. My mom’s dad died when my mom was four and a half. So my grandma: poor, immigrant, youngest of 12 children, came to America, loses her husband, and has two kids. She busted her butt to get both kids through college and my uncle through law school. Education is a huge value in my family. My mom is college educated, she had a job, and she’s independent. Because my grandma didn’t have parents and they didn’t have parents, there’s this background of struggle. The ideal became a situation where the children have two parents and one of them can stay home. That was the dream. So my mom was able to achieve that, and we were very fortunate, and lucky that my parents were able to afford that. My dad owned a business; he was in the army and retired when I was two or three. I grew up with that being the gender role model.

I grew up always knowing that I wanted to be married, and that I wanted to be a mom. And I remember in college someone asked me, “Why do you want that?” And I said that I guess it starts with growing up, [I learned that] that’s what women do. Not in a bad way, in a very privileged way—it is, for me, such a privilege that I will be able to carry and contribute life to the world. But I grew up in such a liberal town, with very liberal almost second set of parents. I had all of these other inputs. So I felt fine with whatever other people chose to do, but this was for me. I went to college really struggling with what I believed faith-wise, and how that fit into what I want in terms of relationships and family. Being in a long-term committed partnership is very important to me.

I was trying to balance all of these things and see how they fit together. I remember I came home from my freshman year of college, and was driving with the woman who is like my second mom. I was of the opinion at that age that feminists were whiny and complained too much. I was annoyed by feminists and didn’t want to be one. I was raised with traditional gender roles as my model. But I also knew that I had it in me to do whatever I want, because I had parents and a grandma who were super gung-ho about education. I was always told I was smart, so I grew up thinking I could do whatever I wanted.

So we were driving and I expressed that, and Lisa, in her beautiful way she has about her, said “Yeah, it’s really important that people be able to choose what they want to do, and the problem is that historically, women have not had that choice. And that’s why people fought for it, in ways that maybe don’t suit you, but they fought so that you have the choice to do what you want.” And I remember what turn we were at on the highway, so every time I pass that turn I think of that moment.

There were a lot of different things happening in college. I was [studying abroad] in Jordan when Malala Yousafzai was shot, and we started GIRLWITHABOOK. Being in Jordan, I was under constant sexual harassment and just having a really crappy time. That’s when I was like, “Yep, I’m a feminist, because this sucks!” It was the cultural restrictions and expectations of how my body can be in public, and then with my work with GIRLWITHABOOK, it was constant discovery. It was a rapid turnaround from not really a feminist to definitely a feminist.

I will say that I’m really fortunate. Now my parents are divorced, and the traditional model has kind of crumbled, in that respect. But, I have a lot of other examples of different relationships that are much more equal, where both partners either work full or part time, and household responsibilities are divided. I don’t think there’s any one right way to do things, especially when it comes to family. It’s all about values, what you’re good at, what you strive for. I have a lot of respect for women who choose to be stay-at-home moms, and men who choose to be stay-at-home dads. If that’s the balance that works best for your family, do it, go for it. I don’t see it as the balance that’s going to work for me. And now that I also know that I’m gay—plot twist—a lot of these things happened at the same time: GIRLWITHABOOK, being a feminist, having really challenging experiences with very extreme gender expectations while I was studying abroad, and realizing that I was gay, and having that all happen in a 12-month period, and having my parents get divorced—there was a lot of stuff being tumbled up. I’m still getting back down and settling from that, but it’s cool because I get to pick how I settle. I still want a long-term relationship, and I still want marriage. I really value the idea of having another person where we have values and goals and commit to being in it for the long haul. And being able to raise radical, social justice aware children. Hopefully I’ll [screw] up, but in different ways from my parents. Each generation you [screw] up a little differently and a little bit better.

LS: Similar to Olivia, I also grew up thinking that I want to get married; I want to be a mom. I don’t think I ever necessarily felt that I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, because even though my mom is a stay-at-home mom, my dad is very feminist, although I don’t know if he’d use that word to describe himself. There’s a big emphasis on education in my family, and he always wanted me to be financially independent. And my brother is very similar.

In terms of other gender roles, I don’t know, it’s so weird; there are certain gender roles that I would see for my family, and then everyone else. Especially growing up in the US. It’s the immigrant experience. Sometimes I would make excuses for my immigrant side, like this is just the way it is, but sometimes I would look at my friend’s moms and be like, “Why don’t you do that?” to my mom. Or even when I go back to Pakistan. A lot of that awareness came in high school or college.

Now I’m very aware and call it out. Saying “I am a feminist” and identifying as that probably came after we started GIRLWITHABOOK. I wasn’t a fan of the patriarchy, but I wasn’t a feminist. I think we both were just so horrified by the assassination attempt on Malala, and were so horrified that a grown man would climb on a school bus and shoot a 14-year-old girl in the head just for going to school.

OC: And that’s the most extreme example of patriarchy, right there. I think that people don’t realize that everything exists on a spectrum. There’s a spectrum of patriarchy, a spectrum of sexism, and a spectrum of feminism. With patriarchy and misogyny, it can range from benevolent sexism to shooting someone in the head. But understanding that if you’re going under the assumption that women should have their grocery bags carried for them, hypothetically, to shooting someone in the head, obviously you’re going to choose not shooting someone in the head and be fine with the groceries. [But] it’s the same underlying things that contribute to that. It’s that men are dominant, stronger, and superior, and women need to be protected not just from other men, but [also] from themselves. And women can’t be trusted with their own minds to make their own decisions about their own bodies and lives and trajectories.

I remember very clearly when we were in Nepal, we had just gone to a school, and we were driving back, and I just kind of said to the car at large, “I actually don’t care how much schooling someone gets.” I had this thing before the trip where I wanted everyone to go to college. But college is not for everyone, and that’s okay! You know, finishing high school is not going to be a reality for every girl, probably for the next 200 years. But I don’t actually care about that; all I care about is when I look at a girl, do you have the resources and the skills to make healthy decisions about your own life and your own trajectory? If you’re in a relationship, do you control yourself in it?

LS: I remember what you said in the car. You said something like: “I just want the girl to be happy, healthy, and have agency in her life.” And that stuck with me, too.

OC: We definitely think that going to school increases proliferation of those things. But that’s the nugget. Happy, healthy, and have agency. That’s all I care about. If you’re having kids, are you having kids because you want to? Giving birth: is it safe? If you’re married to a man, do you have a say in household spending? Does he treat you respectfully? Do your kids grow up seeing him treat you respectfully and expect that for themselves?

RV: What are you interested in?

LS: My big thing right now is about media representation. How people are portrayed, whether it’s on TV, in movies, comic books. Definitely visual representation. I get really bummed out when there’s an announcement about a new movie on the Great Wall of China starring Matt Damon. And intersectionality. I’m very pro-intersectionality.

OC: Hard core.

LS: I think that’s another reason why I really didn’t identify with feminism before, because it was a white lady thing. I didn’t see myself in it. And I don’t even have an academic understanding of feminism. I just take it at its very base: feminism is equality of the sexes. Feminism to me means just having that choice, whether you want to be a stay-at-home mom or have a career in an office.

I remember having conversations with my friend in grad school, and telling her that I’m a feminist. And she was like, “but you dress so modestly.” I can be a feminist and still dress modestly.

OC: That’s the point.

LS: This is why we need it! So going back to media representation, I think it matters. I think back to the children’s books I read, and I was really drawn to books about black kids, and slavery, because those kids looked somewhat more similarly to me. When you have movies that whitewash history, being set in ancient Egypt with white actors, that’s problematic. And then there have been moments now, when I’m in my mid-20s, where I’ve been made to feel less American than other people.

People who look like me have been in the US for generations. But just because my parents moved here, and I’m first generation, I’m sometimes made to feel like less of an American.

OC: I remember you telling me how important Bend it Like Beckham was for you.

LS: Oh, yeah! I love that movie! That movie came out when I was 14 or 15. It was a big event, even in my family. We all went out to the movie theater to see it. I don’t think it even hit me at that point. It was the first time I had seen a South Asian woman on a big screen, who wasn’t just a side character in the background. That had a huge impact on me.

It’s so scary when kids see people who look like them only playing villains. And that’s exactly what happened with brown people. They’re constantly playing villains.

OC: In the movie, originally, Jess and Jules are in love. In the original script, they fall in love. But when they brought it to production and distribution they were like, “It’s already about women who play soccer and one of them is brown, and immigrant, and a religious minority, so it’s already a niche film. They’re going to have to fall in love with their coach and that’s what they’re going to fight about.” So they changed it. But I love that it was originally a gay movie.

I majored in International Studies, and minored in Arabic. That’s really common at American University. End of junior year, beginning of senior year I began getting really into maternal reproductive health, and how it relates to women’s education and development. That’s totally my thing now. I thought I was going to work in government, in security and intelligence. I was at a memorial service beginning of my senior year. I read something, and a woman asked me if I was an English major. Then someone asked me what I was studying. And I said I was studying international relations and would probably end up working for the government, but what I really wanted to do was deliver babies. So maybe when I’m 50 or something I’ll go back to school and be a midwife. And I said it out loud, and I was like, “You know that’s what you want to do, why don’t you just do that now?” So I went back and forth for several years on being a mid-wife or an OB/GYN, and when we were in Nepal I settled on being a doctor.

The year after I graduated I worked at Planned Parenthood in Oregon. It was a medical position, and was all on the job training, so you really get to see community in sexual and reproductive health care up close. For me, from all of our work around gender equality and education with GIRLWITHABOOK, I draw very close linkages to maternal and reproductive health and justice. I think there’s the notion of being pro-choice, which is where the narrative has been for a really long time, and I really enjoy the narrative ‘Reproductive Justice.’ And similarly to feminism, it’s not just about choice; it’s also about having economic and social agency too. It’s not just to have the dream, or being able to see yourself doing the dream, it’s about having the resources to make that happen and make those choices reality for yourself.

RV: What do you feel are society’s expectations of you? Do they match your own?

OC: This is the question you were most afraid of.

LS: Yeah. I hate societal expectations.

OC: They’re the worst!

LS: Society, for me, is Pakistani people. That’s where I feel the most pressure. I don’t feel random pressure from Joe Shmoe on the street—

OC: --Joe the Plumber.

LS: Currently, a lot of expectations are just like, “Okay, get married.” It’s really weighing me down a lot, actually. I feel all of this pressure, everyone around me is getting married, all of my cousins, other Pakistani-American family members my age are getting married. That’s just the constant thing—it’s marriage. And that goes back to gender roles. There are a lot of times where I’m having conversations with people at weddings, with people my parents’ age or older, and they’re like, “That’s nice,” when [I mention that] I went to grad school at Columbia, but it’s almost like it doesn’t really count until I’m married. It’s so weird. You’ll even see South Asian parents wanting doctors for their sons, but not necessarily use it. That’s a huge problem in Pakistan right now, is that in medical schools there, the majority of students are women, and they don’t do anything with [their degree].

OC: It’s something like over 75% of the students are female.

LS: And then they just get married, and then they don’t actually practice.

OC: And less than 10% of practicing physicians in Pakistan are women.

LS: It’s absurd! It’s the dumbest thing. You’re just taking up spots from people who could actually become doctors and do something with their degree.

OC: And the answer is not to not have women go to medical school, it’s make it so women can go to medical school and work as doctors. And be married, go for it!

RV: Do you want to get married?

LS: I do want to get married! But I’m so afraid that I’m going to settle for someone at some point. Just to get married and get it out of the way. There are some days where I really go crazy about it, and I’m like, next guy I see, let’s do it. It sounds really stupid, and it’s dangerous, because I know in the back of my mind it would make me very unhappy. I’ve also heard of other friends, who have gotten divorces after just a year or two, and they’re also Pakistani or South Asian, and some of them totally are succumbing to the pressure. It sucks.

OC: How preposterous is it that our accomplishments don’t matter or are insignificant until they’re validated by being legally attached to another person. That’s absurd. I feel like heterosexual long-term relationships concluding relatively soon in marriage is the baseline. You can do whatever you want on top of that, have a really wonderful Ivy League degree in journalism, make a documentary series, and have started your own nonprofit, but it’s infantilized. It’s like, oh, that’s nice. But you have to have the baseline of your heterosexual marriage for that to count.

OC: So I’m younger, I’m 24, so I feel like there are fewer expectations. I’m still in the post-college period of permissiveness where people don’t care that much, because I am still really young. I feel so much more pressure from myself at this point than I do from society. I’ve always been a high achiever, so it’s harder now with college done to realign what’s accessible in terms of being accomplished. I’m trying to transition my happiness from getting good grades and whatnot to being a person. I’m working on it.

But I think there’s definitely kind of the expectation, from my grandma and that root level. She really wants me to be a doctor. But she was saying to me last year, “Do you think you’ll work after you have kids?” And I was like, well yes, absolutely. And she was so shocked. This woman, who had a 6th/7th grade education and dreamed of going to college, and then, wants that for me so badly and I’ve been able to do it. And yet the end goal is still that I’m married with a husband having kids, and I stay home with the kids. But where is the disconnect? Because I’m hopefully going to have a medical degree and be able to contribute to society in that way. It’s hard for me to get the disconnect. But I understand that in her mind, [staying home with the kids] is the ultimate privilege.

RV: Lena, you went to grad school, and Olivia, you went to college and are planning on medical school. Why is higher education important to you? What has made you realize that it’s the next step or was the next step for you?

OC: There was no realizing it, in my family, it was just expected. There was no if you go to college, it was always when, and really where do you want to go to college. That’s super privileged, and I completely acknowledge that. It was never a question, ever. I didn’t even consider a gap year, although I wish I had, because I learned so much about myself when I studied abroad in college, and it changed what I was interested in and what I thought my goals were, and it would have been really helpful to have some of those goal realizations earlier on. I don’t think that it is the end-all be-all for everybody; especially in the US we can learn from other cultures that value technical and vocational education as much as academic and higher education. I think that we’re hugely missing that in our system. For me, college was definitely the right choice and really important to me to have that space to transition into being an adult. It was a safe environment to test out who you want to be as an adult, both in and out of the classroom—I think most of college happens out of the classroom in terms of learning about yourself.

It was definitely the right thing for me. I love school, I love learning, and I miss it.

LS: For me, even grad school was a given. My dad even wanted me to go to grad school right out of college. I think so many people, especially in the South Asian community, see it as though you’re running a marathon. Like do this, it’ll be good to have this, get this degree too! And because so many South Asian kids go to medical school, so I think that’s probably where my dad was getting that from. It was almost like the whole experience of college was like your baseline education that you need to get, and grad school is what you specialize in and build a career on. The summer before my senior in college I was asking people I worked with [at my internship] and was getting coffee with someone who worked there. And she was so adamant about me not going to grad school right after college. I’m glad I didn’t, because at that time when I was a senior in college—I majored in film and media studies and minored in international studies—and at that time I was thinking maybe I’d get a grad school degree in International Relations. I don’t even know why, that sounds so boring to me now. I took two years in between, and decided that I wanted to do journalism.

I think, similarly to Olivia that [college] is not necessarily for everyone. And especially now, having come back from the trip, for girls, here in the US and the Western world, it is going to be important in helping you become more independent and financially independent. But it may not necessarily be the case in developing countries. If she’s able to get a pretty good job with a high school education, then it’s fine. She can be happy, healthy, and have agency.

RV: What do you think of girls’ education in America? What do you think of education in America? What can we as a society do to improve?

OC: In our education system, so much depends on where you live. So for girls who are a minority, living in a low-income area and don’t have access to a quality public school, your chances are slashed. The likely of teen pregnancy shoots up as well as all these other social issues. And if we had strong schools available for all, I think it would largely be addressed.

LS: I guess it goes beyond that. In the US it’s actually educational institutions. There’s so much sexual assault on campuses. And if that, God forbid, happens to a girl, it can ruin her life, because people aren’t taking her seriously. The right school officials aren’t taking her seriously and punishing the guy who did it.

In America, girls can definitely do and be whatever [they] want. You do technically, under the law, have that right. In terms of society and culture, and what people expect of you, not so much. People would hear that and [object].

At the same time, though, I don’t want to paint some dire picture in the US. And from all our travel, I feel so grateful for being an American. There are a lot of amazing things that we get, and the way that we’re treated. And it has gotten better. Things are getting better. And these conversations that we’re having are good; they’re healthy, it’s a sign of good things happening.

OC: I think there is still a disparity of values where these conversations are happening. We’re sitting in a room right now with three college-educated women. I have a friend that grew up expecting to be a stay at home mom, and thought that the only occupations available to her were teacher or nurse. That’s still really dominant in a lot of areas. And I think addressing the disparity of expectation regionally is important to keep in mind. It absolutely has gotten better relatively, and with global privilege. But still so much depends on how much money you have and where you’re born. Then you factor skin tone into that.

What can we as a society do?

LS: Educate girls.

OC: Educate girls and include boys. Don’t just teach feminism to girls; teach it to boys as well.

LS: Feminism is not just for women—it’s for everybody. 

Olivia (left) and Lena (right) trying on hats in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.  Photo taken by Jennifer Ciochon, GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member

Olivia (left) and Lena (right) trying on hats in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Photo taken by Jennifer Ciochon, GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member