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.


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.