Empowering Women in Pakistan Through Respect, Love, and Qualifications
Interview with Zephaniah - by Lola Johnson, Safe World Student Writer
Inspiration for the Vision
In the British educational system where teachers are often disrespected by students, it may be difficult to envisage a world where the opposite is commonplace. Yet this is what Zephaniah faced at a very young age, when she was humiliated by a teacher.
“One day, my teacher humiliated me so much just because I was sitting on her seat in her absence, acting like a teacher. She not only beat me, but used very dirty language about me in front of my friends.
Since that day I decided that I will make a school, where there will be no discrimination and humiliation for the students, but they will be given respect, love and opportunities to explore their ideas.”
Zephaniah, who holds two masters degrees, had the vision of raising the status of women in her city, through education and empowerment. This was the birth of Zephaniah Free Education, a school that provides free education to female students of all ages.
“My mother never went to school, but she wanted her children to get education by all means.”
Equipped with Skills and Dignity
In Gujranwala, Pakistan, Zephaniah is currently expanding her mother’s vision for education, by setting up the academy and providing skills training such as stitching, beautician courses, and an English language course. The school also offers computer training, using Zeph’s personal laptop.
With these qualifications on their resumes, young girls and women in Gujranwala are equipped to provide for themselves financially, and in a dignified manner.
They are taught and nurtured in a loving environment – one so very different to the everyday negativity that many women face in Pakistan.
Improving Self Esteem
One such student is Maya, an 18 year-old woman born into a very poor family. Zephaniah says:
“She does not speak much, and she thinks she is not that pretty, because her complexion is dark. I kept telling her during her training that education is very important and without education, we can do nothing. After a few days, she came to me and said that she wanted to study; it was a big achievement for us, so I immediately bought her books and a bag.
Although she is silent, I feel that there is a storm of desires in her heart, to tell the people around her that she is not common.
And one day she will prove it to them that she is the prettiest, because beauty is not our face, but real beauty is our character, though her face is so beautiful and innocent.”
A Busy Life - Teaching all Ages
Most teachers would agree that teaching one subject is a stressful job. At Zephaniah Free Academy however, Zeph has to tailor varied lessons for students between the ages of 3 and 65.
“Of course it is very challenging, I have to study so much. I have to prepare lessons according to their requirement and needs - I have to think a lot. I have to arrange activities for different ages.
When I talk to them, I have to be very careful so that I can make them understand very clearly what I say. But I have grown used to it. That’s why the school is successful in keeping students of all ages involved.
Although I teach English, Math, Social Sciences, Islamic Studies, Science and Urdu, I especially focus on teaching love, team work, support, peace and self confidence among students.”
Cultural and Traditional Issues
Not only is Zeph’s motivation personal, it’s a direct response to the cultural issues surrounding women and femininity in Pakistan.
The country’s Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, 2006 provides “relief and protection to women against misuse and abuse of law and prevent[s] their exploitation”. Under this law, exploitation includes rape, kidnapping, and “cohabitation caused by a man deceitfully inducing a belief of lawful marriage”.
While this act upholds certain human rights (on paper), it is no protection against the cultural and traditional bondages choking the women of Pakistan.
Zeph explains that,
“Women face discrimination on every level. People give birth to eight or nine girls in the hope that maybe next time they’ll have a son. This means that girls become useless to them. These girls cannot do a job of their own choice. Neither can they choose a life partner, or their family will kill them, even if the girl is pregnant.
Child marriage is common in some parts of the country. Girls have to present themselves to the families of boys who come, with their sons, to chose them for marriage – just like we place dolls at shops so that people can come and see, reject or select. These girls have to come with a dowry to get the respect of their prospective in-laws. If they are not pretty, they can be rejected any time by their husband who can divorce them anytime he wants. For the women, divorcing their husbands is considered wrong.
Most of the people think girl’s education is not important, because women don’t need to work. When I talk to women, they tell me that they are not allowed to educate their daughters. Sometimes it takes me years to convince a girl’s family about the benefits of education.
Once, someone threw pebbles on our academy, and one of my student’s eyes got injured and started bleeding. That was the most difficult moment of my life.”
The Cost of Success
Nevertheless, Zeph recognises the 500 girls who have so far passed through her school as her biggest success, with 100 girls now having learnt skills to secure their future.
But, success has come at a cost for Zeph. She confesses to beauticians and tailors in Gujranwala who dislike her because her free school affects their business profits.
“There are many people who do not like the Free Academy, because I give the women and girls awareness about their rights. They spread rumours about me in our community, trying to stop girls from coming to me.
They send me open threats and attack my students with pebbles, so that they stop coming here. But I never say anything, because I cannot fight them. Instead, I try to convince them with my character; I try to stick with my objective.
I try to keep going.”
“I Feel I Should Do More...”
Sixteen years have passed since Zeph founded her free school. For 14 years, she has worked during the daytime to fund the night school.
For the last two years, she has also received funding from friends abroad.
“Truth is that I still miss college”, Zeph admits. “I think I would have loved to be educated in an institution, had I the chance. I would have taken a professional degree. But if I did, I would not have been able to change hundreds of lives.
The education system does not make thinkers, but followers. Self-education made me a thinker.
Working 16 years with no break is not easy: it makes me tired. I work every Sunday and I’ve never had leave from my work.
But when I look at my students, I see their lives changing; I see their happy faces; I see their interest in studies, and I feel I should do more.”
Lola Johnson is a second year Film and Media Studies student at the University of Leicester.
"I was born in Lagos, Nigeria; a city of living chaos...
Every woman in Africa is born weak. Life teaches her strength...
Zora Neale Hurston wrote that, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world.”
Yet, the more I read and live, the more I see that all women are mules of the world. For me, it is not about strengthening or empowering women, as we already have both qualities. For me, it is about breaking free from the cage that man, society, culture and tradition have built around us."