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.