There were some new faces today—most notably two Farsi-speaking women balancing infants on their hips, and three teenage girls sitting in the front row, passing giant smiles at me.
The evening before, I had consulted the Barakat team in Cambridge to decide on an age range—only girls between 13 and 25 years of age could enroll in BLISS. It was a tough decision that would mean turning away many eager women, but one that had to be made. It was not only about putting our mission at stake. We were also logistically and financially challenged. More girls enrolling in BLISS would mean more monthly payments, more raw materials, more teachers, more classrooms, and more products to market.
I collected everyone into one room, and began my carefully-prepared monologue, reiterating BLISS’ primary motivation—giving the younger girls, and later on, boys, an opportunity to attend school—and discussing the necessity of limiting enrollment to make the logistics manageable. The moment I mentioned the age constraint (without revealing numbers just yet), a dozen or so faces dropped in disappointment.
The teachers and I went around the room recording names and ages, which turned out to be an amusing exercise in lie-detection. Women whose grand daughters were attending the class shrugged their shoulders when asked their age. “I am not sure. Maybe…30?” Little girls who came up to my waist would claim to be 14 or 15. In the end, much of the age documentation relied on information from the teachers. As the girls got busy embroidering, I rushed to the principal’s office with my information sheet, crossing out names and making a new list of the girls who would enroll in BLISS.
At the end of the hour, when I announced that only those between the ages of 13 and 25 could join, the room broke into frenzy. Two girls came up and told me they were going to be 13 in just a few weeks. Could they please join? Another pleaded with us to keep her mother in the class; they had to pay rent for the month and needed the money. The two Farsi-speaking women started talking very loudly, even as I explained to them that I did not understand their language. The next half hour was spent placating the older women. I sat down with them, and with translation from one of the teachers, urged them to send their young daughters to school instead—the amount BLISS paid their daughters would still contribute to the household income. This time around, the faces seemed more resigned than confrontational.
Later that evening, BLISS kicked off at a second school also run by Barakat for the Afghan community. Here the girls were younger, and there were fewer of them.
Soon we were sitting in a cozy circle, embroidering and chatting. Half an hour into the class, the power went out, and the teachers opened the windows. With the late afternoon sunshine streaming in, the girls continued to work and chat softly. I felt peaceful. This was how I had envisioned BLISS—not just a skills-enhancement and income-generation tool, but an activity that built community, that spread happiness, that the girls took pleasure in and looked forward to.
The fewer numbers meant the girls had warmed up to me by the end of the class, asking me when they would see me again. I felt torn between spending the rest of the week in Attock, and going back to Lahore to meet with professional bag-stitchers.