The day started with a scare – as we drove to Attock from Islamabad once more, I suddenly noticed a frog perched comfortably between my arm and my handbag. What followed is hard to describe but approximately half a second later, I had dashed out the car door, and was waiting on the street-side for the driver to rid the car of the slimy creature.

Back in Attock, accompanied by Farah and Afeefa, the school teachers, I met with 2 families in their homes. Together, they represented the two extremes I had seen among the Turkmen when it came to levels of conservativeness.

The first was home to Zulfia, a 15-year old girl who lived with her brother and sister-in-law. The brother was a friendly 30-something year old, who welcomed us inside with a big smile. Farah and Afeefa felt more comfortable speaking Farsi than Urdu, so the conversation drifted between the two languages. Zulfia’s brother listened patiently to Afeefa, asked a few questions, and then told us that the choice was Zulfia’s –  if she wanted to go to school, she could. For a second, I was shell-shocked.  Zulfia joined the conversation and as I explained BLISS to her, she seemed genuinely interested. The very next day, she joined school and has been coming regularly since. Small victories!

The second was a Turkmen home where 3 young sisters lived and weaved. None attended school. The designated head of the household was a young Turkmen boy – the girls’ brother. While younger, he was the authority on all decisions, because he was a boy. He was shy and polite, and said everything with an endearing smile which made it a little hard to argue with him. The mother sat quietly weaving on a stand-up carpet loom instead of the flat ones I had seen in other homes. The father was in Afghanistan, and his instructions were to not let the girls out of the house for school.

But he himself used to work at the schools, as the chowkidaar, said Afeefa. Yes, but he is a man. It is different.

Soon the girls joined in. They, it turned out, were equally uninterested in attending school. This stood in stark contrast to all other Turkmen girls I had met, who absolutely loved coming to school. One of the girls told us she got a headache when she opened a book. She could not study. Afeefa spoke to her for a little while longer, explaining that she should start at the lowest grade, with the easiest curriculum, that she needed to persist, that everyone could study. But soon we were back at square one – girls did not go to school. They stayed at home. We thanked the family for their time and retreated quietly.

Back at school, it was pay day, which meant a mini-celebration for the girls. I distributed the money myself, along with a small goody-bag that had candy. The girls immediately aggregated their money, and used part of it to order chaat and samosas for everyone. Embroidery commenced as usual, and today the girls decided I would stay for recess/break to play games with them. Half an hour wasn’t long enough; I felt transported back to the days of middle school as we played kho kho, cham cham, and kona kona. The names sounded hilarious now, and apparently I was a great runner. The squealing in the courtyard got louder as the school principal, Shazia, joined us in running around the garden, and sometimes back into the school building, up the stairs to the roof and back down to escape being caught.

At the end of the half hour, Fareeba ran up to me: “Should we call you Saba or Madam?” I laughed; half an hour of seeing me running around shrieking probably made me look less like a Madam and more like plain Saba. I told her to please call me Saba.  She wanted to know when they would see me next and I said probably next week. Her eyes widened. “You are not coming on Monday?” I shook my head no, I had to go back to Lahore for a few days. I hated the sad look in her eyes.

A minute later, she looked up again, smiled, and said “Thank you, Saba. For doing this for us.” I was reminded yet again of why I stayed up nights working on BLISS, why I gave up family time to be with the girls in Attock, why I loved this job so much.

Fareeba

At Farah’s school in Dar-es-Salam, a nice surprise awaited me. Habiba and Hamida, the two sisters who had said they were going to drop out the day before, had decided to stay on! There was something about a young girl deciding to attend school instead of staying at home, that made my day every single time. I thought of these 14, 15-year olds as standing at crossroads in life, and when they decided to stay in school, they were making a choice that would affect not just them and their families, but their future generations.

One of our older students was a married woman whose eyes sparkled as she came to receive her goody-bag. She pointed at the Mentos in my hand, motioning to her lips. She thought it was lipstick! I suppose it was shaped like one. Sort of. I explained that it was candy, and she said she wished it were lipstick because her husband would love that. I smiled and rummaged through my handbag to find a plum Body Shop lip pencil that she happily accepted.

The day ended with a lunch meeting with all the Barakat staff that had been involved with BLISS. Sumera Sahar, Barakat’s country coordinator, and I recapped the last 9 months, and decided to give Abdul Rehman the official title and pay of BLISS’ Project Manager. Abdul Rehman and Shazia wanted to find ways to involve the mothers – they had been coming to Shazia periodically to ask that they be enrolled in BLISS too, and the girls were more likely to stay in school if their mothers were part of the program.

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