BLISS kicked off in Attock today amidst much excitement.

Monday, October 5th found about 40 excited Turkmen women and girls cramped into a tiny classroom of the Barakat evening school to attend the first BLISS Art and Crafts class. Most were in their teens, but there were also middle-aged women—something neither I nor the two teachers by my side had anticipated.  A few dozen pairs of eager, expectant eyes turned on me as I gave a quick introduction to BLISS. The teachers split the group into two rooms, passing around fabric with hand-drawn motifs, threads, needles and frames. For most, embroidery was a skill they acquired as little girls; this first class aimed to gauge their skill levels.

Soon the classrooms were a flurry of activity—girls huddled together to embroider, look at each others’ work, learn and laugh. Some scurried around looking for thread, scissors or help from the teachers. Their enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. I soon realized that they took me to be some sort of embroidery guru. After all, I had come all the way to Attock to start this embroidery class for them. Every now and then, they would run up to me, exclaiming ‘Teacher! Teacher!’ and proudly display half-embroidered motifs. I smiled, directing them to the teachers, and helping with the simpler tasks—getting thread through the needles, drawing motifs on the fabric. Shuttling between the two rooms, I talked to them and answered their questions.

Not surprisingly, the first question among the older women was about the monthly amount BLISS would pay them. The second was whether the school hours (where they studied) could be decreased in favor of the art hours (currently a single hour where they embroidered). This heightened my concern that the older women only wanted to join because of the financial incentive. Their age made them unproductive at the carpet looms, so they welcomed any source of income. BLISS was not a vocational school for older, unemployed women—worthy as that cause is in its own right. It was a tool to increase access to education and practical skills for school-going girls—the next generation of mothers—whom we wanted to equip with the knowledge and skills to improve their own lives and raise healthy, educated, and financially stable citizens. The monetary incentive was simply a short-term necessity, a means to battle the opportunity cost of attending school.

These 50 and 60-something year olds had no opportunity cost, and not much interest in getting an education. They were already grandmothers, some great-grandmothers. Some had bad eyesight, others could barely hold up the pencils to write in their notebooks. While my heart went out to them, I felt a responsibility to our mission—a mission that would need to be balanced with the expectations of this community. We needed a plan to restrict attendance to the younger girls, but as Abdul Rehman rightfully pointed out later, some diplomacy was warranted. After all, it was the daughters of these older women who comprised the younger population of the class.