Walking Tour....

By Olivia Curl, GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder

Of Old Lahore. Yep, not your typical walking tour. In all of Pakistan, there was very little walking for Jen, Lena, and me. In Karachi, our attempts to get B-roll of the city consisted largely of *get out of car* *stand near car filming for 45-60 seconds* *hop back in car and drive away*. This was mostly due to our commitment to be overly cautious as a trio of women, two of whom are white Americans who stick out like a couple of very sore white thumbs. 

But, much to my outdoors-loving self's delight, we had some blissful moments of walking time. In Rabwah, we followed girls from home to school (as case studies, not in a creepy way) and in Muzaffarabad Lena and Jen got to inch across rickety bridges and scamper up mountainsides to informal schools (I was sick, but I acknowledge that they got to be outside).

By the time we got to Lahore, our final stop in Pakistan, we were still being quite careful but slightly less obsessive about being outside. On B-roll day (always a great day) we hit some of Lahore's most famous sites. We started at Lahore fort, a citadel inside the Walled City of Lahore, passing by a field of social cricket games in Iqbal Park (tragically the site of this year's attack on Easter), and about a dozen different groups of school girls on field trips. We then met up with some friends from Rabwah who accompanied us on a walking tour of Old Lahore.

Yep. A walking tour in Pakistan. Check that one off the bucket list. 

Below are some shots of the Moghul-era narrow alleyways and mosques that make Old Lahore so special. 

 

**Special thanks to our enthusiastic tour guide who insisted that if we walked quickly, we could hit everything important in the 45 minutes we had available for the walled city (he was totally right and returned us to our cars on time). 

**Special thanks also to our wonderful driver who not only schlepped us around the whole time we were in Lahore, but who also insisted on accompanying us through the crowds of Iqbal Park and the Lahore Fort.

Being The Interviewer

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef

A Pakistani woman taking a selfie at a rooftop in Lahore.

A Pakistani woman taking a selfie at a rooftop in Lahore.

LAHORE, PAKISTAN

While I was at journalism school, I had plenty of opportunities to interview people. All kinds of people too. I interviewed artists and politicians, activists and novelists, actresses and even Eliot Spitzer (which was super weird). So I had some experience with making small talk in the beginning of an interview to make the subject feel more comfortable. I usually have a good sense of humor that comes in handy at those moments when I’m trying to build trust with them.

On the trip, Olivia and I would take turns interviewing people, but for most of our time in Pakistan, I was the one asking the questions since I speak Urdu. When there was an opportunity to speak English, I would ask Olivia to take over. I wanted her to have as many chances to speak to Pakistanis herself as she could, but I also felt so mentally exhausted at times that I just wanted someone else to do the talking.

A normal day for us would often start at dawn. We would visit young girls in their homes and walk with them to school, we would interview teachers and fellow classmates. At the school, we would meet other students that we wanted to do case studies on. We would end up visiting her home and interview her family, film her playing with her siblings. In the afternoon, we would take time to get some footage of the city we were in and her surrounding neighborhood. And then the day would end with us passing out in our hotel rooms, only to wake up at dawn the next day to drive or fly to the next city.

There was no time to process anything. And I don’t think any of us anticipated that. I mean, who blocks out time to mentally deal with really intense interviews or stories that make you cry? Well, we definitely did not.

One of the most challenging days I had while interviewing was in Lahore. We were visiting the Depilex Smileagain Foundation, which provides acid attack survivors with medical treatment, legal assistance, and generally helps them to get back on their feet. Depilex also provides training and helps these women to get certain jobs. We visited their hair salon where they train survivors, along with other women who haven’t been victims of acid attacks, to become hair stylists. That day, we met with three women, two of whom had been burned by their husbands, and the third woman was attacked for rejecting a guy who wanted to marry her.

Depilex had been kind enough to let us set up our equipment in a separate room in the salon, and they brought the women in there one by one. The first interview we had was with a woman named Noreen. She walked in and smiled nervously at us and sat on the couch opposite from me. Half of her face had been burned and she only had one eye. I couldn’t help myself, but I looked away at first. It’s one thing to see burn victims on TV or in pictures, it’s a completely different thing to meet someone that has been through something so horrific.

I kept thinking to myself, “Okay go into journalist mode. Make her feel comfortable. This isn’t about you.” This was the job. Noreen was here and sitting in front of me because she wanted to tell her story. The interview began and she told me about her ex-husband, how she had been with him for years before deciding to get a divorce when he lost his job and would take out his anger on her. They had three daughters together. The divorce had been finalized and she was supporting herself and had extra support from her family. Things were moving on, until one day when she was dropping two of her daughters off to school, he came up behind them and threw acid on her face. Some of it even got on her daughters’ hands. She told me how she screamed and screamed as people came running in the street to help her.

Noreen told all of this so matter of factly, and meanwhile my heart was breaking. Because this interview was being conducted in Urdu, I felt like Noreen and I were in our own little universe, even though Olivia and Jen were right beside me. Jen was handling the camera, while Olivia managed the audio equipment. I knew that they were following along with the gist of our conversation, but the full blown effect of Noreen’s words were hitting me hard. Anyone who speaks multiple languages can tell you that there are some words, some emotions you can’t fully convey in another language.

When I did turn to Olivia and Jen to translate, I almost started crying. I wasn’t even giving a full word-for-word translation. I gave bullet points because it was all I could handle. There were times when Noreen could see on my face how disturbed I was by what happened to her. And I think at some point in the past, that might have made her cry. But she just had this look on her face that said, “This doesn’t define me.”

The rest of the day went like this and I had to go into some sort of autopilot mode just to keep my head clear during the rest of the interviews. I didn’t realize how drained I was until we got in the car that evening to drive back to our hotel. I remember gazing out the window at all the traffic, the cars whizzing by. And I remember my mind being blank. I couldn’t process anymore.

Some seriously awesome artwork made by students at the TAC School.

Some seriously awesome artwork made by students at the TAC School.

Although that was one of the most difficult interviews I had ever done, it certainly wasn’t the only one, and it wasn’t the only kind of interview that we did either. Lahore was also the city where we had the chance to conduct one of my favorite interviews as well. This wasn’t with just one girl, it was a roundtable discussion with an entire group of young college-aged women, and it happened to be in English.

One of the more impressive schools we visited was called the Teach A Child (TAC) School. Again, we woke up at the crack of dawn and arrived at the school well before assembly time and spent the entire day with them. The teachers, the staff, the principal were all incredible and allowed us to speak to numerous students. One of the most amazing things they did was invite an entire group of girls, who were all alumni from the TAC school, to speak with us. It wasn’t even something that we had asked them to arrange. The principal and the staff just thought it would be a good idea.

I don’t know what it was about that day, maybe we all just happened to be in a great mood, but that was one of the most inspiring and heartening conversations I had ever taken part in. And I loved that we could do it in English because all of a sudden, a bunch of girls from Pakistan were bonding with three random American girls about school and family and life. We talked about their education, what kind of careers they want to have, what they wish for their families, for themselves. They told us what they love about being girls and also what they hated about it. They shared the pressures that they feel on a daily basis, whether it’s from family, society, or themselves. I honestly didn’t want that conversation to end.

So now that I’ve had ample time to process all the interviews from the trip, from Depilex to the TAC school alumni, I can’t help but marvel at all of it. Every step of the way, we met women and girls who shared their stories with us. And that’s not always normal, not everyone is that brave. But by the end of the trip, I was convinced that every woman on this planet is a lot braver than she lets on. 

Only Love for Rabwah

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef

The motto of the Ahmadi community.

The motto of the Ahmadi community.

RABWAH, PAKISTAN

While traveling throughout Pakistan, one of my favorite parts was visiting Rabwah. Officially known as Chenab Negar, Rabwah is a city of a little less than 100,000 people located in the Punjab province. It is also home to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, a severely persecuted minority sect of Islam.

Ahmadis and mainstream Muslims believe in the Abrahamic lineage of prophets and in the second coming of Jesus. The only difference between Ahmadis and other Muslims is that they believe the second coming of the Messiah has already happened. And this one small difference has brought immense suffering to the Ahmadi community throughout the world.

The Ahmadi community in Pakistan has had to deal with a whole host of issues and discrimination. From the basic ignorance of non-Ahmadi neighbors to mob violence and the burning of their homes or workplaces, and from hate speech to the infringement on their civil rights. Even the laws of Pakistan do not recognize them as full citizens. In fact, Ahmadis are not considered to be Muslims under the Second Amendment of the Pakistani constitution. Under Ordinance XX, which was implemented in 1984, they have no right to practice Islam or use Islamic terms or titles. Even by saying assalam-u-alaikum (the traditional greeting of peace) to someone else is viewed as a criminal act.

I was learning all this as our gracious hosts in Rabwah gave us a guided tour of their museum. We saw pictures of the Ahmadi community and where it originated in India. We saw galleries upon galleries of Rabwah's own history and how it had grown to become a sanctuary for Ahmadis across the country. And as I walked through the exhibits, I felt so stupid, so ashamed that I was learning all this just now. I used to live in Pakistan and I have visited this country almost every year since I moved away. But I had never known any of this until I went to Rabwah.

The only thing I did know was that Ahmadis were hated by most other Muslims, but I knew that without fully understanding why. Not every country has a Nobel laureate, but Pakistan is fortunate enough to have two: Malala Yousafzai and Muhammad Abdus Salam. Malala is the youngest and the only Pakistani to receive a Nobel Peace prize. Muhammad Abdus Salam won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979, and was the first Pakistani ever to become a Nobel laureate. Yet his country chooses not to remember him and even went so far as to debase his grave to make that point.

We had the opportunity to visit Muhammad Abdus Salam's grave in Rabwah, and when I took a closer look, I saw where the government had whited out the word, "Muslim". Even in death, he can't call himself that.

We had the opportunity to visit Muhammad Abdus Salam's grave in Rabwah, and when I took a closer look, I saw where the government had whited out the word, "Muslim". Even in death, he can't call himself that.

I can hardly begin to explain this kind of behavior. I truly don’t understand where so much of their hatred stems from. And how did it become so systemic? Not only in Pakistan, but throughout the Muslim world. This was especially hard for me to grasp when we interviewed young girls in Rabwah. We asked several of them what they would want others to know about Ahmadis. Many of them said they would want the world to know that they are people too. They carry no ill will towards others no matter how bad it gets. Violence and retaliation is not what the Ahmadi community is about.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find it easy to accept people like that as equals, as neighbors, as friends. If there’s anyone truly embodying the message of peace that Islam is founded on, it’s the Ahmadis.

I caught this photo during recess. 

I caught this photo during recess. 

And since yesterday was the last day of Ramadan, I want to wish all my Muslim friends and family, both Ahmadi and non-Ahmadi, Sunni, Shia, and everyone in between a very happy Eid-ul-Fitr.

Eid Mubarak!

Traveling While Brown

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-founder, Lena Shareef

No pictures from our trip could truly capture the essence of this post better than this meme

No pictures from our trip could truly capture the essence of this post better than this meme

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN

Today’s team blog post is about the Diplomatic Enclave. This is a special place in Islamabad that houses diplomatic missions and cafes where foreign aid workers, diplomats, expats, and other non-Pakistanis gather to hang out, drink, etc. Actually, it’s more like where foreigners are allowed to gather, especially those working on behalf of their governments (particularly the U.S. government) mainly because of safety concerns. It’s truly a shame because as we met some of these foreign workers, we came to realize that during most of their time in Pakistan, they hardly get to see any of the country. Even worse, they barely get to interact with any normal Pakistanis that aren’t already in their workplace. So naturally, they turn to places like the Diplomatic Enclave to let off steam and be themselves with peers working in similar industries. In case I didn’t make it clear earlier, it’s not open to the general public.

After spending several days in the beautiful mountains of Muzaffarabad and on our last day in Islamabad, we had the opportunity to visit this so-called haven. That evening, we first met up with a few friends (most of whom work as aid workers in Islamabad) at a hotel where we had dinner. They then suggested we go to the Diplomatic Enclave for coffee and dessert. That sounded like a lovely idea and we were rather fascinated by this heavily guarded refuge for foreigners, so we excitedly agreed to go.

As we were walking to our friend’s car, she turned to me apologetically and said, “I’m so sorry but I think you’ll have to duck and hide when we get to the entrance gate.” I wasn’t even confused when she said that to me. I knew exactly why such actions were necessary. In fact, I chuckled and nodded as I got in the car and proceeded to duck down while a towel was thrown over my head to fully cover me up. Because you see, as a Pakistani woman with brown skin, the security guards would make a huge hassle and ask for my passport, identification, etc. even though I am a U.S. citizen. Ultimately, it would be a long and arduous process to finally prove to them that I have no ulterior motive for wanting to visit the Diplomatic Enclave and that I am only going there to eat some chocolate form of dessert. On the other hand, Jen and Olivia didn’t need to hide because, frankly, they are white. The security guards would just assume that they are aid workers or diplomats or foreigners in general who already have their passes and usher them in right away. And that’s exactly what happened.

Things like that had become routine on our trip. I got double takes (in every country actually) when I insisted that I, too, am an American. Waiters would come to our table faster if my friends waved their hands at them instead of me. Sometimes hotel staff would think I made a mistake as I handed over my American passport when we checked in. For some reason, these kinds of things became very normal, very quickly for me as we traveled from city to city. Jen and Olivia noticed the differences in treatment too and were baffled and frequently disturbed by it, which I appreciated. But I didn’t let it bother me too much until after the whole project was over and we were back in the U.S. I think I just didn’t want to acknowledge it. And the only way I could do that was by focusing on our work.

Later that night, as our friend drove us out of the Diplomatic Enclave, I asked if I needed to hide again. She said, “No, they don’t care as much about who leaves.” After she dropped us off at our hotel, I spoke to my father on the phone and told him what happened. Once he finished laughing, he said to me, “So you, as a Pakistani, had to hide from other Pakistanis. In Pakistan.” Yup. That about sums it up. I still joke about it when I tell friends or colleagues about the incident, but after awhile it brings a bad taste to my mouth. It’s not fun having to prove my worth only exists as long as I have a shiny blue passport. And it’s definitely not fun when I have to do the same thing at home in the U.S.

My thoughts exactly

My thoughts exactly

Diarrhea & Disappointment

By GIRLWITHABOOK CO-FOUNDER, OLIVIA CURL

I got really sick in Islamabad. Like, really sick. Beyond your usual “travel bugs”. I’ve run screaming “hamaam” (bathroom in Arabic) through the courtyard of the US embassy in Cairo with machine-gun armed guards chasing after me during a particularly bad bout of stomach illness in Egypt. I am no stranger to travel stomach bugs, it just comes as part of the travel package: Plane tickets. New sites to see. Diarrhea. It’s a well established pattern.

The morning we were supposed to leave to drive up to Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir, I was on day 7 of my body not keeping anything in for more than 15 minutes. I mean anything. It was bad. I was also semi delirious and Jen and Lena, being the wise people they are, insisted that I go to a hospital.

The doctors ruled out typhoid (yay the oral vaccine worked woohoo) and a bunch of other issues, put me on an IV drip of saline (for hydration) and rocephin (to attack the gnarly bacterial assault occurring in my gut). I slept and floated in and out of consciousness, vaguely noting that the nurses (who were intravenous PROS let me tell you) were wearing old-timey blue and white nurses uniforms with skirts and cute hats. It was very Call the Midwife and made me happy as I let a bag of fluid aided by gravity perk me up again.

Being sick is never fun, and being sick while traveling is even less fun. The biggest bummer of this whole thing for me is that of all the places we were planning on traveling to, Muzaffarabad was the only place I was specifically looking forward to seeing. I was looking forward to seeing the mountains climbing high and mighty, the western extension of the Himalayas. The rivers, the greenery. I was excited for the potential Oregon-ness of it all. Plus, Azad Kashmir is disputed territory, part of the ongoing crankiness between India and Pakistan. An independently administered state north of Pakistan, Azad Kashmir is dramatic, green, and beautiful, and we needed special permits to be able to travel into this restricted territory.

All of the hype around even being allowed to go into Azad Kashmir made me even more excited to be able to go to this special, and rarely visited, area. This made being sick even more of a bummer. For all three days we spent in Muzaffarabad, I spent my time laying in bed, binge watching Game of Thrones, eating plain rice (with a little butter and salt) and looking out the window at the valley and river running through the town. The view was magnificent, and I’m sad that I wasn’t able to travel through the area with Jen and Lena, visiting schools on top of mountains, girls’ science colleges, and so many other hidden treasures in the mountains.

The view of the Muzaffarabad valley from our hotel window (basically all I saw of Muzaffarabad).

The view of the Muzaffarabad valley from our hotel window (basically all I saw of Muzaffarabad).

I know I'll make it back some day, and I'll get to see those mountain top schools and the girls’ science college. Until then, I'll remember the view from my window and know that there are amazing girls doing their best to learn in a less than optimal situation.

*Special thanks to Lena and Jen for insisting on taking me to the hospital and generally taking care of me. I can be kind of a stubborn patient.

Finding Those Safe Spaces No Matter What Form They Take

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef

The famous Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. This is the largest mosque in the country.

The famous Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. This is the largest mosque in the country.

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN

Throughout this trip, we did our best to visit all kinds of schools. In rural areas and urban, rich and poor. Schools that were being run out of school buses or classes being taught on top of mountains. We also had the chance to visit an all-girls university in the form of the International Islamic University (IIU) in Islamabad. Similar to the female madrassa we visited outside of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, I was impressed by the women we met and their eagerness to learn. And I was completely unimpressed with myself for, once again, being surprised by that.

Unlike the madrassa in Kyrgyzstan though, the International Islamic University was huge. It's a full-fledge university with multiple campuses, a library, dorms, everything. This university has two campuses -- one for boys, another for girls. Library hours are divided so that girls and boys only go inside on certain designated days. (We happened to visit on a boys' day and the shocked looks on some of the boys' faces were hilarious).

Although we weren't allowed to film and photograph around campus, we did get the opportunity to interview three young women studying English Literature at the university. We spoke about their interests, their thoughts on being women in Pakistan and society, and why they wanted to attend a university with an all-girls campus. Some people might have walked onto that campus expecting oppressed young women being forced to hide away from the boys. Full disclosure: That ridiculous thought did cross my mind.

The students we spoke to who are all studying English Literature

The students we spoke to who are all studying English Literature

I don't know why my brain immediately jumps to negative things about all-girls schools, but I think it has to do with the fact that I didn't fully understand what it means to have a specific educational space for a specific group of people. I saw the value for these kinds of safe spaces (especially in America) for other minority groups, such as the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Latinos, etc. But it took some time for me to completely grasp the importance of such a space for women because we make up half of humanity. For purely statistical reasons, we shouldn't have to find or create a space where we feel safe. We have a right to that kind of space anyway. But that's not the reality we live in. Because women are being harassed on streets. Because women are not given control over their bodies. Because girls are told to not be bossy. Because girls are led to believe they're not good at science or math. Because women are told to control their emotions. Because of a million reasons, I can see properly now why a women's university or an all-girls school is actually a brilliant place for a woman to learn.

By the end of the trip, I was thinking that maybe I could have benefited from that kind of environment. Maybe then I wouldn't hesitate so much before speaking out loud in a crowded room. Maybe I wouldn't pause before sending an email to a male coworker. These are little things, but they add up and echo loudly in my head.

The female madrassa we visited outside of Osh served a great purpose for the young women living in that area. No, they didn't necessarily have the resources to learn astrophysics or English literature there, but that school empowered the girls in that community. Just as the International Islamic University is doing for young women all over Pakistan.

Read more about all-girls schools in the "Looking At Us" blog run by our intern, Rosie! And be sure to read more about our time in Pakistan.

Mughals in the Backyard

BY GIRLWITHABOOK CO-FOUNDER, OLIVIA CURL

Growing up in Oregon, our big elementary school field trips usually revolved around school hikes up the McKenzie river, visits to the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and fish hatcheries. It was pretty great, but when I arrived at university on the East Coast, I found myself jealous of my peers who had grown up casually visiting sites like the liberty bell and civil war battlefields. “How neat!” I thought, “To grow up near so much history!” Well, frankly, most of the rest of the world (and especially Asia) has America super beat in terms of growing up near history. 

Before flying north to Islamabad we took a day trip about 100 km east of Karachi to the town of Thatta. With a population of 220,000 Thatta feels somewhere between a big-town and a small-city. Our purpose was to visit one of HOPE Foundation’s formal schools and community hospital. HOPE (Health Oriented Preventive Education) is a Karachi-based NGO promoting sustainable self-sufficiency in communities throughout Pakistan with a combination of formal and informal schools, vocational centers, hospitals, and nutritional programs. 

The formal school— packed to the gills with eager kiddos, most of whom weren’t able to attend school before now — is a two story building adjacent to the small hospital. The hospital has a small surgical theatre and largely deals with C-sections, miscarriages, obstructed labor, and other pregnancy and birthing complications. 

Maternal and reproductive health is kind of my thing. I love learning about how different cultures and communities approach pregnancy, birth, and infants. I think Jen and Lena probably got sick of my reliably loud squeals whenever a baby was in sight throughout all four countries (in fairness, Jen has the same reaction to cats). So you can imagine my delight when we not only got to meander through the hospital but also got to visit with post-op women, new mamas, and teeny-tiny brand-new babies. There were lots of squeals to be had. 

Women recovering in HOPE's community hospital in Thatta (photo by Jennifer Ciochon)

Women recovering in HOPE's community hospital in Thatta (photo by Jennifer Ciochon)

The squeals continued in a different way when the HOPE staff took us to Thatta’s main historical attraction: the Shah Jahan Masjid. This is an instance where Pakistan kicks America’s butt in terms of growing up with astounding history in one’s backyard. The Shah Jahan Masjid was built in 1647 during the reign of the emperor Shah Jahan in the Mughal Empire. It is simply spectacular. 

As you can probably imagine, and especially in recent years, there’s not a lot of casual tourism to Pakistan, and even more rare is Western tourism to Pakistan. It felt incredibly special to be able to visit this extraordinary piece of history, really an architectural wonder, and so far off the beaten path in Pakistan. Adding to the magic, families were casually coming through the courtyard as we poked around and took pictures. Some came to pray, many came just to hang out. 

All countries and peoples have their magic, and I don’t begrudge my childhood of fish hatchery field trips at all. Still though, it was pretty nifty to imagine a childhood where kiddos accompany their mothers and aunts and cousins to their local 400 year old mosque from the Mughal Empire. 

Girls pose in the garden that precedes the entrance of the Shah Jahan Masjid in Thatta (photo by Olivia Curl)

Girls pose in the garden that precedes the entrance of the Shah Jahan Masjid in Thatta (photo by Olivia Curl)

Starting at the Top: Karachi Grammar School

By GIRLWITHABOOK co-founder, Olivia Curl

If you’re American and you’ve heard of Karachi, then you’re probably a bit ahead of the game (at least compared to the Average Joe’s Game). If you’re American, you’ve heard of Karachi, and you have a positive impression of Karachi, then you’re ahead of pretty much everybody’s game. 

If you’re a Karachiite and you’re reading this and already feeling grumpy about this blog post, let’s just clear something up right now: I LOVED Karachi and want to go back. It’s a great city, we got to see a lot, talk to a lot of people from all backgrounds and neighborhoods, eat great food, hang out with Lena’s super great family (y’all are the best), and over all get a good feel for this coastal city of 22 million people. 

Still though, most Americans who have heard of Karachi probably don’t have an overwhelmingly positive impression of the city. I don’t have official polling on this, but we’ll rely on the fairly consistent expressions of “You’re going to PAKISTAN?!?” that I got from concerned friends, family, and complete strangers in the months leading up to our departure, as a reasonable barometer for Average America’s Thoughts on Pakistan and it’s largest city. 

I think it’s fair to say (and Lena just backed me up on this) that I’m more aware and have a better understanding of the human landscape of Pakistan than most people. I knew going in that we were going to visit great schools in Pakistan, with driven and privileged students, and I knew that we were going visit poor schools with limited resources in tough areas. That’s just the reality of the country (of any country, really).

The first school we visited in Karachi was Karachi Grammar School (KGS), considered by most to be one of (if not the) best schools in Karachi. It’s an elite and historical English-medium institution with students from kindergarten through O-levels and A-levels (high school and pre-university) and it regularly sends students abroad to top universities in the U.S. and U.K. Notable alums include Oscar-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. I knew all this ahead of time, and I was expecting to see a range of educational experiences in Karachi (and all of Pakistan), but it’s one thing to know something and quite another to see and understand it. 

"It’s one thing to know something and quite another to see and understand it"

When we pulled up in front of KGS’s recently heightened and fortified walls, I was really excited. This was our first school in Pakistan and I was just about bursting to start expanding upon the work we’d done in Kyrgyzstan and to see what, if any, similarities there would be between girls in both countries (spoiler alert: there are tons of similarities, and a couple of systemic differences that are really interesting). Due to recent attacks against schools in Pakistan in the past year, KGS had significantly increased their security at each of their campuses (we were visiting the higher secondary campus) and we weren’t allowed to film or take photos.

The front of the college campus of KGS (taken from their website)

The front of the college campus of KGS (taken from their website)

KGS is a pretty snazzy temple of learning. For starters, the buildings and grounds are beautiful brickstone with open courtyards for students to mingle during break times, and top-tier facilities including science labs, a swimming pool for the swim team, a gym, basketball court outside, and a dirt field where students play cricket. But what really got me was talking to teen girls in the last two or so years of school, looking towards university plans and their futures. 

In the sunny courtyard, we introduced ourselves to a few students and jumped right into our questions. Wearing super cute uniforms of white salwar, lavender kurtas, and white dupattas, these girls blew us away with their drive, ambition, and acute awareness of their privilege in the context of broader Pakistani society. Many of them were looking towards the UK and US for their college plans, and they spoke eloquently (in rapid-fire English, by the way) of social expectations of women and how they navigate the spaces of privilege, education, and expectation. They also spoke of a fierce desire to take their education (wherever they may go) and then to return to Pakistan to better their country. At just 16 and 17 years old, this group of five young women all expressed a deep love of Pakistan, and an understanding that if things are to improve, people with means and access to the best of educational experiences had a responsibility to come back and apply their opportunities for the betterment of others. 

KGS college students during a campus clean up day -- taken from a former student's personal blog.

KGS college students during a campus clean up day -- taken from a former student's personal blog.

It was deeply moving to hear young teen girls talk fluidly about loving math (or “maths” as it’s called in Pakistan and throughout the British system— made my American self chuckle quite a bit), science, their discussion-based social and current events courses, and then pivot to parties and dancing and sport and then back to their families and how hard their parents had worked to earn medical degrees abroad (in one instance) and then came back to Pakistan to raise their children. It was a broad and eye-opening conversation. 

Yes, it’s one thing to “know” that in Karachi I would find elite institutions that would easily rival U.S. high schools, but it’s quite another to stand and chat with young girls with big dreams. In Karachi, we absolutely encountered crushing poverty, and we didn't shy from it. It’s important to cover all aspects of a city, all segments of society. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth require context and serve to inform each other in the puzzle of society. 

I am glad that we started our tour of schools in Karachi with KGS. When it comes to Pakistan, soul crushing poverty is, in many ways, less surprising to the Western mind than academic excellence and Ivy-league bound teenagers. I am glad that we began with an institution that flips the common narrative of education in Pakistan, and I am equally glad that from KGS we turned around and jumped right working class neighborhoods, slums, and rural communities. 

Pakistan is diverse in many ways, and we took our obligation to honestly represent that diversity very seriously. I think we did a decent job. 

 

Real Talk: When Going To School Isn't Enough

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef

A view of Machar Colony, a slum in Karachi.

A view of Machar Colony, a slum in Karachi.

KARACHI, PAKISTAN

In Kyrgyzstan, we met and interviewed girls who had big dreams of being diplomats and doctors, journalists and lawyers. People there aren’t worried about their kids learning to read and write. In Pakistan, however, we saw a lot of basic poverty. The kind that creates barriers and obstacles to things that should be simple. Things that shouldn’t have to be given up, like an education.

We saw a lot of talented, driven, ambitious girls throughout our travels. We also saw some girls who don’t really see any value in education. Their lives, their paths are already set out for them. And many times, it doesn’t involve reading or writing or books or anything that has to do with their intellect. Not every girl grows up to be a Nobel prize winner. Not every girl grows up to be Malala. And that’s a right on its own too. Every child should be allowed to feel lazy or tired or fed up with what life’s thrown at them. Because they’re children. But that’s why it’s even more important to make sure those kids, all kids, go to school. That’s what schools are for. They are supposed to be places where kids can learn and grow and be nurtured. That’s where they’re supposed to find out about possibilities and have dreams of their own. The kids who don’t want to go to school or think that they don’t need school...they are the ones who need it the most.

Have you ever read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? It’s a classic and a coming-of-age story about a girl, Francie Nolan, growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, right before World War I. Francie comes from a pretty poor family. After her father dies, she starts working at a factory, and after she gets laid off, she works as a file clerk in Manhattan. And this is all before she even starts high school. Francie is a girl who loves to read and write. She often writes about her own life and the poverty she sees on a daily basis, much to the dismay of certain teachers who think that kind of writing is inappropriate. But she doesn’t let that get her down. She’s so excited to start high school, until one day her mother announces that she can only afford to send Francie’s younger brother, Neeley (short for Cornelius) to school next year. Both Francie and Neeley are furious about this decision. Neeley doesn’t even want to go to school. He likes earning money (because he has been working to help out the family too) and Francie wants more than anything to continue on to high school. Neither of them understand why their mother is doing this. She tells them, “Because if I don’t make him, [Neeley] will never go back. Where you, Francie, will fight and manage to get back somehow.”

I kept thinking about this part of the book. I kept thinking about this when we met a girl named Aqsa in Karachi. She lives in a slum of Karachi called Machar Colony, which quite literally means Mosquito Colony. Nearly 700,000 people live in that slum, the majority of whom work in the fish business as laborers, fisherman, or shrimp peelers. They are born, live, breathe, work, and die there. We talked to Aqsa and she took us to her home where we met other members of her family, including her grandmother and her sister. We asked Aqsa and her sister about their lives and what they want to be when they grow up. And we got some unexpected answers. Aqsa first told us that she wanted to be a school principal. When we asked her why, she said because her father told her to. Her older sister stopped going to school some years ago. She told us she can write her name, but beyond that what’s the point? She knows that she will live and die in Machar Colony. That is her reality. What can education do for her when she already knows what her destiny is? We all looked at each other at that point. We didn’t have a good and straightforward answer to that.

Aqsa sitting at her home in Machar Colony with her family.

Aqsa sitting at her home in Machar Colony with her family.

All of a sudden, I felt stupid for thinking I could walk into this girl’s home and assume I know what’s best for her and her family. That might seem obvious to others, but I started this project with a clear idea of what every girl’s childhood should look like. It usually involves going to school, being healthy, and having dreams. So it was a slap in the face when I realized that that’s just not how it works. Not everyone gets the same opportunities, no matter how many schools you build. But that doesn’t change the fact that those of us who can do something about this, should still try. We can’t let that get us down. For all I know, maybe Aqsa will think more about her future now that she’s seen and met three random American girls who were able to visit her home purely because of their education.

Scroll through our Pakistan photo gallery and read more about Aqsa's story and Machar Colony here.

Street Photography in Pakistan... Or At Least Trying To

By GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member, Jennifer Ciochon

Men pose in front of an auto rickshaw in Lahore.

Men pose in front of an auto rickshaw in Lahore.

“Hello, my name is Asif, I am from the ISI. Can I have your itinerary so I can follow you?” That’s basically how I pictured the conversation as a man from Pakistan’s intelligence agency approached our guide in Muzaffarabad, Kashmir in northern Pakistan. We were at a student’s house interviewing her family when he just showed up and discreetly introduced himself to our guide. Of course his name wasn’t really Asif but I suppose he needed to tell us something since he openly followed us on his motorcycle as we visited schools and people’s homes. He was our shadow for those few days. I wonder if we should have offered him tea.

That was surprisingly our only encounter with someone from the government (that I am aware of). We had entered on research visas with the purpose of research on education. We intentionally kept it vague and we never mentioned the j-word (journalists).

Before leaving for Pakistan, everyone worried about our safety. Lena and her family were obviously nervous for Olivia and me - two very visibly white people. My background is Polish and Scottish. You can’t get any whiter than that. And of course, there are my cameras which make me stand out even more.

I knew before leaving that I wouldn’t be able to roam about the streets and markets to photograph people living their daily lives. I knew our movements would be restricted to hopping in and out of the car, even just to go five minutes down the road. Just because we couldn’t see any threat didn’t mean it wasn’t there.

But our time in Pakistan was incredible. Thanks to Lena’s family and all of their friends and connections, our time there couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Her family and friends embraced us as they were eager to show us the Pakistan they know and love - the side of Pakistan that is never shown in the news since only terrorism, disasters and oppressed women in black burqas seem to interest western media outlets. And sadly that is what many in the world imagine when they think of Pakistan.

So what was it like as a white female photographer to be in Pakistan? Our generous hosts in Karachi - our first stop in the country - were also basically our body guards. We did exactly as they said. But naturally after being whisked away in their car from point A to point B everyday, stepping out of the car only to enter the building as quickly as possible to avoid attraction, I grew itchy to photograph and wander.

Filming from a balcony in Karachi

Filming from a balcony in Karachi

With enough discussion, a day to do some street photography was arranged. Of course they weren’t about to let me loose and wander freely. We drove to certain areas, pulled over, let me out so I could do my thing for a minute, then hop back in. This isn’t usually how I do it, but I was grateful I was able to do that.

How people react to being photographed always varies from country to country. I had been working in Tunisia before and in the cities people generally loved being photographed. But in Pakistan, how would people react to being photographed, and by a white woman at that?

One of the first times I hopped out to photograph, I had asked this street vendor if I could take his photo. He shook his head saying no, and I respected that. But then, a man (or friend?) nearby jested with him saying he should have let me photograph him.

Other than that, people were surprisingly open or indifferent to me photographing them. I wasn’t sure what to expect to be honest. But naturally I was happy and relieved.

I know we only scratched the surface in Pakistan. Now that we are out of Pakistan, people still ask if it was safe. I always tell them we had an incredible time and we never felt threatened (not even by that ISI guy - which amused me more than anything since I always imagined spooks exhibiting a bit more discretion than that). Yes we had to be careful, of course we did. But it didn’t stop us from loving that country. Every person we met, from Lena’s family and friends to the people we interviewed across the country, it made our experience in Pakistan. And it is for the people we met and the friends we made that makes me want to come back again, hopefully for longer.

Below is a slideshow of photos of day to day life from Karachi, Lahore, Rabwa and Muzaffarabad.




It's Hard to Love Pakistan

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef

Hanging out at an outdoor cafe called Chai Shai in Karachi

Hanging out at an outdoor cafe called Chai Shai in Karachi

KARACHI, PAKISTAN

Going to Pakistan was nothing new for me. I used to live there when I was younger and I travel there almost every year (usually to attend a wedding) since I moved away. But never before have I ever traveled to Pakistan with white people. I’ve never even seen a white person in Pakistan before. This was all going through my mind as we sat, two white women and a brown one, at the Dubai airport waiting for our flight to Karachi, Pakistan.

I have never felt nervous while traveling to the homeland. Growing up, I remember friends or classmates always asking me, “But is it safe?” whenever I told them where I was going for summer vacation. At first I would respond with reassurances saying of course it was safe. Later in high school, I would joke around and reply, “Well, it’s safe for me,” implying that I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb in Pakistan. I wasn’t considered a minority there. At least not based on the color of my skin.

But as we sat at our gate waiting for our flight to board, I started feeling nervous. Not for myself, but for my friends. I knew they were excited to go, but I also knew they must be feeling at least a tiny bit nervous. It certainly wasn’t visible to me, but how could they not? No matter how much I tried to prepare them, describing the look and feel of Karachi (our first stop), what the people are like, Pakistani etiquette, the clothes, the food, everything, nothing was going to change the fact that they were going to stick out. That could get a lot of stares or comments from people passing us in the street. Even people commenting to their face. It also doesn’t help that on a political level, Pakistan and the U.S. don’t have the best relationship all the time. So yeah. I was nervous about the reaction we would get from friends and strangers alike.

Our plane landed in Karachi just a little past midnight. We were staying at the home of one of my father’s best friends and his wife for about ten days. I know we made the decision to start in Karachi out of purely logistical reasons. That’s the city I know best, it’s where almost all my family and friends are, we have the most solid contacts there. Even aside from all the logistical benefits, it was the best decision we made.

Olivia and Jen at one of the first schools we visited in Karachi

Olivia and Jen at one of the first schools we visited in Karachi

Jen and Olivia’s first introduction to Pakistan was in someone’s home, where we slept in super comfy beds, ate incredible home-cooked food, and finally had the chance to do our laundry.  They got to meet my cousins, who took us to different cafes and restaurants where we could all hang out. And of course from a work perspective, Karachi was the best place to start our month-long journey in Pakistan. Our hosts took us to a wide range of schools and colleges throughout the city. We got to see it all, from Karachi Grammar School, known to be one of the most prestigious private schools in the city, to schools placed smack dab in the middle of Machar Colony, a slum in the city that holds close to 700,000 people.

Every Pakistani we came across, whether it was a family member or someone working at one of the schools we visited, I could see that they all wanted to show Jen and Olivia another side to Pakistan. They wanted to show the true beauty, because they knew that all we see on TV in America is the ugly, the oppressed, the helpless, and the weak when it comes to Pakistan. At times, I would even get defensive. I didn’t want my friends to pass judgement on the country or its people like they were just another culture from some third world country. It was unfair for me to think they would act like that, but I just really wanted them to see beyond the surface.

I thought I would be spending a lot of my time in Pakistan trying to either protect my friends or explain to them the harsher qualities of the country. After all, it took me years to love Karachi itself for what it is, the good and the bad. But of course, my friends didn’t need any of that. Instead, I realized that traveling to Pakistan with two white women changed a lot of my own notions about the place. I am so grateful to my family and our hosts for showing my friends the awesomeness that is Karachi, because it really did make the rest of our time in Pakistan all the better. And I am so humbled by the girls we met in all the schools who made us laugh and cry, and challenged our way of thinking by simply opening up to us and telling their stories.

I used to think that if I didn’t have any family there (a.k.a. any obligation to attend a wedding), then I probably would never visit Pakistan. But after this trip, I know that my bonds to the country are now deeper than that. As long as I have the means and the health, I will always come back.

A selfie of us with my cousins

A selfie of us with my cousins

The Girls of Naryn

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-founder, Lena Shareef

Our favorite family in Naryn

Our favorite family in Naryn

I’m not great with kids. I never have been. My brother makes fun of me for it all the time because (somehow) kids love him. It's so unfair because he's extremely indifferent towards all children. I, on the other hand, have a better time relating to kids when they reach high school. But anywhere between the ages of six and 14, I just don’t get. Some kids are blessed with confidence from the moment they can wobble on their own two legs. That usually scares me and I’m envious because I’m still struggling to build up my own self-esteem in my mid-twenties. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m not really sure what to say to the shy kids either when they give their quiet one-word answers. That’s what you get when you put a bunch of introverts in the same room. Silence.

On this trip, however, things were different. About halfway through our time in Kyrgyzstan, we visited Naryn province with our awesome guide, Azamat. Once he understood what kind of stories we were looking for, he suggested we visit his aunt’s home in a very small town in Naryn where she lives on her own with her four young daughters, the oldest of whom is ten years old. Their father had passed away a year ago.

We were excited to meet this family since this was going to (finally) be our first case study of young girls. We were also nervous about showing up at Azamat’s aunt’s door because as we found out, the same exact time that we were going to be there was the one year anniversary of her husband’s death. In Kyrgyz culture, the family of the deceased essentially cook a lot of food and invite other family members over as a way to remember their loved ones who have passed. This lasts for about three days...and our arrival overlapped perfectly with that.

So. We’ve shown up at this beautiful three-room home to meet and interview four lovely young girls on the first anniversary of their father’s death. All while there are dozens of other aunts, uncles, cousins coming in and out of the home to pay their respects. On top of that, we could only communicate with other people through Azamat, our guide and translator. Let’s just say, there were a lot of awkward smiles, nodding our heads, and drinking tea (so much tea).

Most of the time we would sit in a quiet corner of a room and try to stay out of everyone’s way. Whenever we did see an opportunity, we pulled out our cameras to capture life in this home and and the girls interacting with their family. Despite the fact that these people all came together to remember a man whose life ended too soon, we saw a lot of joy in this family. We saw it when we played clapping games with the girls. We saw it in their grandfather’s expression when he would gesture for us to eat more when meals were served. We saw it in the older cousins who would help their aunt to feed the sheep and carry hot water into the house. We saw it when all the women of the family were crowded in the kitchen making noodles or boiling another pot of tea.

This place also made me realize that maybe kids don’t hate me that much. We thought we might be causing a lot of distress, especially to the young girls, with our cameras and following them around at school. And the timing couldn’t have been worst because of the anniversary. But of course, as we would say to each other countless times throughout this entire trip, we were wrong. Not only were the girls all for it, they loved us. They loved being around us and seeing how our cameras work. They loved showing us around their farm. They got so excited every time we walked into a room. We got particularly close to the two eldest girls Saikal and Ainazic, who are ten and eight years old respectively. These are the girls we focused on in our case study. We interviewed them in their home, filmed them walking to school, and in their classrooms. It’s amazing they didn’t get sick of us. But then again, we did make them look like rock stars, following them around school with our cameras, as all their classmates stared with their mouths hanging open. *swag*

One moment I won’t forget was when we were filming Saikal’s class. We were sitting in the back corner. Olivia and Jen had their cameras out and I was capturing the audio with our recorder. Saikal and her classmates had been doing a group activity, which involved standing in a circle of some sort. And near the end, when all the students were going back to their seats, Saikal rushed over to me and gave me a hug. She didn’t say a word, just grinned and ran back to her seat. I couldn’t help smiling either. It was one of the most random, touching things that happened to me while we were in Kyrgyzstan. Here was a girl who was not afraid to show affection to someone who didn’t even speak the same language as her.

At the end of the nearly three days we spent there, I found it really hard to say goodbye to those girls and that family. They reminded me so much of my own. I didn’t need to speak Kyrgyz to know that we share a lot of love and similarities. Hugging those girls for the last time was really tough for me. As we drove away, Azamat told us that even though the timing of our arrival was slightly awkward, our presence there was a welcome distraction from somber occasion. He thought we really made a difference in those girls’ lives.

I certainly hope so, but I know for a fact they’ve changed mine for the better.

Saikal with her youngest sister

Saikal with her youngest sister

Tea and Toilets

By GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member, Jennifer Ciochon

When I think of Kyrgyzstan, I think of the incredible hospitality of people, the epic mountainous landscapes, tea with raspberry jam (try it, it is life changing), and then the freezing outhouses, with the latter two going hand in hand.

An intrinsic part of Kyrgyz hospitality is to offer their guests tea. A lot of tea. Poor Lena, she hated it. I love tea but even my stomach could not keep up with the copious amounts of tea that were offered. Every host made sure that our tea cups were never empty.

But of course, what goes in must come out. And then came the dilemma. It was freezing and the villages we were in didn’t have plumbing. So that meant the outhouse. Did I mention it was freezing?

It got to be a running joke among us. Oh how we missed our porcelain thrones (aka indoor toilets). Naturally we would try to avoid using the outhouses as much as we could. It’s not that we couldn’t handle squatting. We have all had our fair share of using squatter toilets. It was the cold.

We would laugh about the dilemma every time: accept the endless tea being offered and face the freezing consequences (or just hold it until we made it back to our hotel after an hour long trip on rocky unpaved roads to our hotel… if that was even an option), or offend our hosts by refusing tea. Obviously we drank the tea.

Of course I totally expected to use squatter toilets throughout this trip. But I admit I was a bit taken aback by the lack of infrastructure for plumbing and sewage in most of the towns and villages we visited in Kyrgyzstan, which meant almost every house (regardless of their income) had their toilet (or dirt hole) in a wooden shack outside. Even in some of the rural parts of India that I have been to, the squatter toilets were connected to some kind of sewage line.

One village we stayed in while in Naryn province, no one had indoor toilets. The school for the village, funnily enough, did have taps for water inside. But the toilets were cement slabs in the ground off to the side of the school (no wooden doors either, just had to hope no one would walk around the corner). But the school was expanding, and they were planning for their new building to have indoor toilets! The first in the whole village!

We certainly had our laughs about it (usually seeing our faces after we come out from the outhouse). But one family we met reminded us of its difficulty even for the local population. Of course for most people, these outhouses are just a part of life, it is what they are used to. But for Adinai, this one girl with cerebral palsy living with her grandmother (after her parents abandoned her), using those outhouses - especially in the winter time - is almost impossible. That is why her grandmother sends Adinai to the capital Bishkek to stay with relatives who have real toilets that are easier for her to use.

Adinai and her grandmother in their little corner shop.

Adinai and her grandmother in their little corner shop.

After every trip where I spent considerable time with squatter toilets and outhouses, it really does make me grateful for my constant access to “porcelain thrones.” But I realize how quickly I forget and take for granted this luxury we all have. But this time I am trying not to forget. To carry with me and to remember the experiences of the people we met along this incredible journey we went on.

 

Scalding Perspective

By GIRLWITHABOOK CO-FOUNDER, OLIVIA CURL

I grew up camping. Hard core, back country, days on end carrying your food, shelter, warmth, water, everything-on-your-back-kind-of-camping. I even grew up snow camping. (Yes, that’s camping in the snow.) Let me tell you, even for a rough and tumble pacific northwest nature girl like me, there is something distinctly unique about staying in a house, but having no plumbing.

With camping, there’s a tent and outside of the tent, nature. If it’s decent enough weather and you’ve got a water source, you can brace yourself and plunge into a river with some biodegradable soap for a quick clean up. If it’s winter, well, you’re in a tent in snow and you weren’t expecting to shower that week anyways. Maybe just a sponge bath with some baby wipes (you gotta do what you gotta do).

For whatever reason, none of these essential childhood experiences properly prepared me for spending three days and two nights in a rural Kyrgyz village with no plumbing. We’re talking about walking past the sheep and cows in their pens past the horse and through the field to get to the outhouse, cannister of boiled water above a basin, bringing buckets of water up from the spring kind-of-no-plumbing.

Working, running after our 8 year old case study kiddo, Ainazik, as she walked to school, trudging through snow, doing all of the normal life things, while staying in a three room house that doesn’t have heating, somehow was more challenging to my brain than snow camping. I was desperate for a shower. (In fairness, we were all desperate, our baby wipe stash got used up halfway through the second day.)

After three amazing days of work, learning what doing a case study meant for us, rolling with the punches of not speaking Kyrgyz, and becoming friends with a great group of kiddos, we headed back to Naryn City, the capital of Kyrgyzstan’s eastern Naryn province. Our primary goals for Naryn City: a hot shower. Wifi would have been ideal, but it was not even close to a priority.

Beautifully, the Khan Tengri hotel -- a delightful establishment with a decent breakfast that I would highly recommend to any travelers making their way through Naryn -- had plumbing AND hot water. Scalding water, some would say. I nearly had to lower the temperature, but I didn’t. I relished in the heat, so excited to not be desperately wearing every piece of clothing I’d brought on the trip just to stay warm-ish through the night.

Sometimes when traveling, it’s a conversation that makes an impact on your perspective. Sometimes it’s witnessing someone else’s joy, someone else’s pain. Sometimes it’s something big, and other times it’s something very small. And sometimes it’s the simple joy of being clean and toasty.

More often than not, rural beauty makes up for a lack of plumbing. 

More often than not, rural beauty makes up for a lack of plumbing. 

Thoughts on a Female Madrassa

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef

Aravan's mosque, established in 2006.

Aravan's mosque, established in 2006.

We visited a female madrassa in an area outside of Osh called Aravan. We met with two teachers and 17 young girls, and talked with them as a group. We weren’t allowed to film, photograph, or even record their voices as we sat around their classroom. Instead we just talked to them. We explained who we are, why we were there. They were all smiling and so excited to meet us, three young American women who wanted to learn more about them.

We sat on long rectangular pillows with colorful floral patterns around low tables formed in a U-shape. Every single girl wore a headscarf. One girl wore a niqab, which she eventually took off. We went around the table and each girl introduced herself. The teachers called on some girls to recite from the Quran for us.

Later on, we asked what they want to be when they grow up. Some want to be teachers, and others want to be doctors. One 15-year-old girl wants to be a dentist. The English teacher at the madrassa told us she wanted to be a journalist as a child but she got married when she was 18. She always enjoyed learning foreign languages, but put that interest aside when she married and started carrying other responsibilities. It sounds tragic to us, right? But she was telling us all this with a smile on her face. Why should she be sad? She now teaches English at this madrassa to young girls she obviously has grown to love and care for.

And yet, I still have a lot of weird feelings about this place as a Muslim. I walked in thinking, “Holy crap this is a completely different world.” The worst part is I walked in feeling a little sorry for them, for the fact that they’re so isolated from the rest of the world and they’re missing out on so many things. At this school, they provide the girls a religious education but they also give them practical skills like sewing, cooking, family budget planning (yeah that one surprised me too).

Is it really such a bad thing to provide an education that prepares these girls for the reality they live in? Yes, most of them will be married by the time they are 20 years old. No, it doesn’t seem like many of them will go on to university. But they are still given an education. And the teachers assure us that there is no resistance from parents or anyone in their communities for these girls to study or eventually attend university.

But I go back and forth on this.

The girls asked us questions too. They wanted to know more about what we studied, what faith we believe in. They asked us about our dreams too. I feel as if they are missing out on so much. They could be doctors, lawyers, dancers, chefs, engineers, architects, anything. Will they have regrets in life? Sure, but then so will I. Just because I have dreams outside of the box doesn’t make me any better than them. It doesn’t make me superior. And there is no shame in having so-called smaller dreams. It is no small thing to want to get married, raise a family, and be happy. Happiness is a big dream that few of us attain.

They’re the rebels.

One of our last questions to them was, “what is the most important thing a woman can do in her life?” The girls thought about it for a few seconds. To get a good education, they said. Including a religious one and to raise your family well. It was a specific enough response for us to understand their worldview, while still leaving room for interpretation.

We live such different lives. We are worlds apart. But what’s important is that every girl, every woman gets to choose how she lives her life. So if she wants to dedicate herself to raising a family that’s healthy and educated, then that is her choice. The only thing I want an education to do for a girl is lay out all the options she has. That’s the point. Education should lead to opportunities. Education should lead to her freedom.

Checking Off My Bucket List: Buzkashi

By GIRLWITHABOOK Board Member, Jennifer Ciochon

Bucket lists, we all have one, right? Before setting off for this adventure, the three of us had a frank discussion about what we wanted from this experience. We mainly talked about our own professional goals (for ourselves and for GIRLWITHABOOK), but naturally we each had our own personal bucket list, things that we just had to do or see while on the road. One of mine: to see a buzkashi game.

So what is buzkashi? Well it is kind of like polo, where men on horses divided into two teams hit a ball around to get it into their goal on the field… except, instead of a ball they use a decapitated goat or sheep. And sometimes they even maim the legs to make it harder for the players to grab hold of as they wrestle each other for the carcass. This game is played across Central Asia, and is most commonly known as buzkashi (what they call it in Afghanistan). In Kyrgyzstan, they call it ‘kok-boru’.

I do have to add for those who might be squeamish or disturbed by buzkashi, the animal is slaughtered in a humane way (in accordance to Islamic tradition) and the meat is eaten after the game so nothing is wasted. In other words, the game just tenderizes the meat.

But of course, why on earth would such a brutal game be on my bucket list? And I don’t even like sports! Well this may sound like a bit of a cliche, but it began after helping to clear out my grandfather’s house in 2011 as he was finally (begrudgingly) moving into a nursing home. It had been years since my grandmother had passed away, but much of her stuff was still in the house.

My mom had found some of my grandmother’s old letters, including one written to her sister. She wrote: “I just need to get away from Leonard [my grandfather] and the kids.” And of course, of all the places one would chose to go for their grand escape, my grandmother wrote she was off to Afghanistan. Yes, you read that right. My grandmother, a traditional southern-belle and apparently bored housewife, went off to Afghanistan for a little getaway.

Granted, she had some friends in Kabul at the time and she knew she would be comfortable with them (this was the 1960’s but she was no hippy and she knew she would travel in style). And of course the point of all this is that she saw a buzkashi game, normally prohibited to local women from watching. But she got it all on tape.

This wasn’t my first time hearing about buzkashi and I remember my grandfather had told me way back in the day that my grandmother had gone to Afghanistan and saw this game. But truth be told, I hadn’t fully grasped just how unusual that was at the time. And she passed away before I had the chance to really ask her about it, and of course to know why she needed to “just get away.” Parts of my grandmother’s life will remain a mystery to me as her conservative upbringing meant she didn’t open up about her personal troubles to too many people around her. And early on in my childhood she suffered several crippling strokes that left her speech impaired, so I confess I never really got to know her well before she did pass away.

After reading her letter and watching the silent video of her time in Afghanistan (which included the game), I knew this was something I wanted to see for myself. While I think the game is truly fascinating, I realize now that maybe part of my desire to see the game was a way to have something in common with my grandmother.

Which brings me to my bucket list. When I discovered that they played buzkashi in Kyrgyzstan, I was thrilled! But when I asked a Kyrgyz friend who was helping us in the country, she told me the game was usually only played for big events. I felt a bit crushed at the time but I had accepted that maybe I won’t get to see buzkashi on this trip.

We were in Naryn province near the border with China. It had snowed in the mountains surrounding us, and it was freezing. I had gotten a cold a couple of days before, and was feeling rather drained so I was happy to close my eyes for the next couple of hours while on the road to our next destination. But with the landscape being what it was (aka incredible and epic), this was hard to do.

Then we saw a horde of men racing across the field on their horses. I asked what was going on, and our fixer told us they were playing ‘kok-boru.’ Kok what? Then he explained it, and said it was like buzkashi in Afghanistan. I instantly shouted “STOP THE CAR” and probably gave everyone in the car a heart attack. The excitement gave me a bit of an adrenaline rush and that cold was suddenly forgotten.

Our fixer stopped the car and I instantly grabbed my cameras and headed out to the field to see how close I could get to the game without being trampled. Needless to say I was one happy girl. It was exhilarating to see buzkashi in action and I was definitely lost in the moment with my cameras focused on the game.

The teams had somewhat color-coded themselves (pink and blue) to distinguish themselves on the dusty field. A dog ran around alongside the horses, happily oblivious to the idea he might also get trampled. Seeing the game up close I didn’t realize until then how much physical wrestling was involved among the players while on top of their horses as they struggled to grab the carcass.

Once we hopped back into the car and the adrenaline rush subsided, my thoughts immediately went to my grandmother, wondering what she would have thought of all this (and I suppose of my life which for the past several years has been moving from one country to another). I am sure she would have been thrilled. But of course, I still have to see the game played in Afghanistan, just as my grandmother had once done.

 

 

It's Rude to Not Eat Your Mystery Meat

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Olivia Curl

“That’s a big bone…”

“Is that a cow?”

“…That must have been a big cow.”

“It can’t be a sheep, right?”

“No that’s definitely not a sheep.”

I’m a vegetarian. At least, I usually am. But in preparation for this expedition I started to reintroduce meat into my diet because, well, I knew that in Kyrgyzstan and probably Pakistan there was going to be a lot of meat. So I sucked it up and started eating meat again about eight weeks before we left. (Now that we’re home, I’m back to my vegetarian ways, much to my Portuguese grandmother’s chagrin.)

To get to our first case study, we drove hours from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s very Russified and European capital, on bumpy unfinished mountain roads into Naryn province. Naryn is Kyrgyzstan’s most rural and, arguably, most authentically Kyrgyz province. The nomadic, Turkic traditions of the Kyrgyz people that have persisted for centuries are most apparent in this rugged, dramatic, gorgeous province that I frequently described as “A high desert plateau in the upper Himalayas on the edge of China.” We were in the middle of nowhere, and it was awesome.

At this altitude, the barren landscape freezes from October to May and growing vegetables is rarely possible. So, the diet is largely meat and starch. Mostly, noodles. Cooked in fat of some kind.

When we rolled into On Archa village for the first time, the sun had just set and I was sleepy and stiff from a long day in the car. Most of all, I was nervous. We were about to enter into a family’s home. A family that was commemorating the one year anniversary of a young father’s sudden death. A family that had four daughters aged 10 and younger. A family that only spoke Kyrgyz (not that our grand total of three and a half Russian words would have been super helpful).

And we were going to stay here for two nights and two full days and do our first full-on, intimate case study of the doc project. I was nervous. Walking into someone’s home is always a little uncomfortable. Walking into someone's home to do work on an emotionally charged weekend is nerve wracking.

Of course, as soon as we entered the home, leaving our hiking boots outside, we were warmly greeted and quickly ushered into one of the home’s three rooms to sit and wait for dinner. This was the first night of a weekend of family visitation, with relatives coming far and wide to pay their respects to the family and remember the young father who died last year.

Once everybody had arrived, we were ushered into the second of three rooms and seated around the edges of this square, 10x10 foot room with a large, plastic sheet on the floor. Grandpa, a regal Kyrgyz man in a new fur hat, sat in the center of the back wall and seemed to preside over the dinner eating process (which was quite a process).

First, out came a plate of on-the-bone meat. Big bones. Huge bones. We couldn’t figure out what we were eating. We asked Azamat, our guide, and he wouldn’t tell us. So, that was really reassuring.

The plate was passed around and everyone took a chunk, so we took a chunk too. Everyone started picking off pieces and munching, so we munched too. Then we were handed small sharp knives and everyone started shredding their hunk of meat onto a plate, so we started shredding too. Let it be known that our meat shredding skills are not up to par and everybody laughed at us (we laughed at us too).

Once everyone had been shredding a while, we dumped our meat pile onto the large pile of noodles that, we later discovered, were boiled in mystery meat fat. Small bowls were passed around and we sipped mystery meat broth. When chunks of intestine were passed around (and Jen took the last small piece and I was forced to gnaw on a big piece), I was very grateful for the mystery broth to wash down the intestines (after about 10 minutes of chewing and trying not to choke while laughing).

This meal is called “beshbarmak” which means “five fingers”. You’re supposed to dig into the noodles, meat, and hunks of fat aka garnish with your five fingers and chow down. Kyrgyz tradition insists that to eat with a utensil is to distance oneself from the food and actually makes the food taste bad.

Jen, Lena and I laughed through this pretty classic example of “Americans travel to new country, eat unfamiliar food, do their best, get laughed at by their hosts.” But, hey, at least we were having a good time.

And speaking of hay, a few days later Azamat finally came clean about our introductory meal with his family. It was horse. Yes, we ate a horse, yes those were very big bones. Azamat knew all along that it was horse. He asked his little cousin about it one night (in Kyrgyz, we didn’t understand)

“Where’s grandpa’s horse?”

She replied: “We cut it for the guests.”

And that, as they say in Kyrgyzstan, is that. (Not really. Everybody says that.)

 

This is the horse that didn't get eaten

This is the horse that didn't get eaten

Becoming A Team

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Lena Shareef

This entire trip was an insane idea. Not only is it completely crazy to try to visit four different countries in a row over the course of four months, but to do it with two other people who I have never traveled with before? Sounds ill advised at best, and potentially catastrophic at worst.

How was this going to work?

I knew Olivia and Jen separately. Despite the fact that we all attended the same undergraduate university, we didn’t necessarily hang out with the same crowds (at the same time) while we were there. In fact, I met Jen right before we studied abroad together in Cairo, Egypt during our junior year. Our friendship actually formed while we were overseas. And I met Olivia during my senior year, but didn’t really get to know her well until the week of my graduation when she needed a place to crash. Both Olivia and Jen didn’t even know each other until about a year before we embarked on this crazy trip. Well, they knew of each other but never hung out until I introduced them.

The three of us hadn’t even been in the same room until July 2015. And even then, we were only able to be together for only 24 hours. Let that sink in: The three of us were only able to see each other in person for only 24 HOURS, a mere 3 months before embarking on our epic, crazy trip to South and Central Asia.

I ask you again, how on earth was this going to work?

It’s a question I constantly asked myself leading up to the trip and constantly pushed to the back of my mind because I just didn’t want to think about it. What if we fought every single day? What if we all ended up hating each other? What if we couldn’t agree on who to interview or the subject matter of each interview or the hotel to stay at in every city we went to? What if we couldn’t agree on anything?

Although none of us had any answers to any of those questions, we did have one thing: the mission. We knew that this trip wasn’t about us. It was about all the incredible girls and women we were about to meet. It was about their dreams, their voices, their stories. This was the mission. 

We also made a pact to always be honest with one another. If something felt wrong or uncomfortable, we had to let each other know. No excuses.

That helped a lot, but there were still plenty of bumps along the way.

But...we stumbled. There were days when we didn’t agree. There were times when we got on each other’s nerves. A lot. Sometimes there was a little passive aggressive attitude going around. Other times, the silent treatment took over. And then there were the interviews. The first few were super awkward. We all felt a little unsure of ourselves. Was the camera angle ok? Is this the right way to connect a lav mic? Do we even know what we’re doing? (Thankfully we really took the “fake it til you make it” attitude to heart. It helps)!  

But we always came back to our normal selves for the mission. Even though we messed up at times and got irritated, we knew we could always rely on us as a team. Plus, we recognized that we had a healthy dose of luck on our side.

Because we did get lucky. I had the smartest, coolest, most talented, and versatile young women by my side. Whatever challenge came our way, we problem solved the shit out of it. All while keeping our eyes on the mission.

So...how did we make this work? Like everything else. One day at a time.

A selfie from every country we went to! Starting in the top left going clockwise: Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Nepal, India.

A selfie from every country we went to! Starting in the top left going clockwise: Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Nepal, India.

 

 

In Aravan, We're a Bunch of Old Maids

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-Founder, Olivia Curl 

I’ve been to several weddings outside of the US. I don’t believe I was explicitly invited to any of them, but so often weddings in the rest of the world are steeped in tradition, culture, and religion, and exist well outside of the maticulous Pinterest board planning we find in the states. The kinds of weddings where the happy couple would be aghast if foreign strangers showed up at random, with no invitation, or at the very least the protection of so-and-so plus one status.

I’ve been to weddings in Egypt, Jordan, and now Kyrgyzstan.

In the small, mostly Uzbek town of Aravan, outside of Osh in the south of Kyrgyzstan, women are typically married by the age of 20 or 21. Our 26, 26, and 23 year old selves were well approaching old-maid status, as was pointed out to us several times. Despite our advanced marital age, the women of the groom’s family ushered us into their home and the bride proudly displayed the many dresses, cloaks, and veils she would don throughout the afternoon’s ceremonies.

This was the third day of her wedding. They day when the groom’s parents and his female relatives welcome her into their home and family. We scampered from the house through the small courtyard, dodging icy rain drops to sit in a large rectangle along with the other women under a covered overhang. Our cameras gave us away, and the family designated us the official supplemental wedding photographers and videographers. No pressure.

When the bride emerged from the house and made her way towards her in-laws, all of us found our breath caught in that universal moment of anticipation when a bride comes into view. Utterly unable to see a thing due to her veil, her friend and aunt guided her to stand in front of the place where her new in-laws sat. She bowed repeatedly, a full and proper right angle, all while the wedding singer wailed and drummed in the corner. Her father-in-law’s eyes grew teary as she finally knelt in front of them. The groom’s parents heaped white flour and sweets and wrapped candies into her outstretched hands. All meant to symbolize her welcoming into their family, and a sweet, clean, and pure beginning to a good marriage.

As we’ve seen repeatedly throughout our time traveling, marriage for so many young girls is perceived as the ultimate life goal. The finish line. There is little talk of what comes after, and most girls will grow into women who get married, stay at home, raise children, and never leave. Good or bad or something different altogether, this is the truth for so many of the world’s women. Be it in Pinterest-planned unions in the West, or Uzbek communities in the south of Kyrgyzstan. There are universal expectations of women, that manifest themselves in different ways, but all share a common root.

What isn’t universal, is the loving eye of a father-in-law who weeps upon welcoming his new daughter. Or the persistent squeezes of a new mother-in-law who lifts the bride’s veil to kiss her into the family. Love, sadly, isn’t always universal, but on an icy day in Aravan, there was nothing but love to be found.


Check out our Kyrgyzstan Photo of the Day series for for more photos of this wedding.