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TEDWomen 2017

Shameem Akhtar: To learn is to be free

Filmed:
1,106,767 views

Shameem Akhtar posed as a boy during her early childhood in Pakistan so she could enjoy the privileges Pakistani girls are rarely afforded: to play outside and attend school. In an eye-opening, personal talk, Akhtar recounts how the opportunity to get an education altered the course of her life -- and ultimately changed the culture of her village, where today every young girl goes to school.

- Writer, social worker
Shameem Akhtar is a teacher working to empower girls in Sindh, a province in the southeast of Pakistan. Full bio

A room full of boys.
00:12
A girl child, hardly nine
or ten years old,
00:15
she is sitting in the center
of the room, surrounded by books.
00:19
She is the only girl among boys,
00:25
and is barely missing
her female cousins and friends,
00:27
who are inside the home
instead of the school,
00:32
because they are not allowed
to get an education alongside boys.
00:37
There isn't a single functional
girls' school in her village.
00:44
She was born in a Baloch
conservative tribe,
00:50
where women and girls
are a matter of honor.
00:54
She is the eldest in her family,
01:00
and when she was about to be born,
her parents wanted a baby boy.
01:02
But they had bad luck;
a baby girl arrived.
01:08
It was customary in her family
to keep girls inside the homes.
01:12
But her uncle, who was
a university graduate,
01:18
he wanted to give her
an opportunity to see the world,
01:22
to be part of the society.
01:27
Luckily, she has a name
that can be used for both men and women.
01:30
So he saw a chance
to change her course of life.
01:36
So he decided to raise her as a boy.
01:40
At three months old,
01:44
she went from being
a baby girl, to baby boy.
01:46
She is given a boy's getup.
01:51
She is allowed to go outside
01:54
and get an education alongside boys.
01:57
She is free, she is confident.
01:59
She observes, she notes
small, everyday injustices
02:03
faced by women and girls in her village.
02:09
When newspapers arrive at her home,
02:14
she watches as it passes
from the eldest man to the youngest man.
02:17
By the time women get hold of the paper,
02:24
it is old news.
02:29
She completes her eighth-grade year.
02:31
Now fear starts to come in.
02:35
This will be the end of her education,
02:38
because the only option
for high school for further study
02:42
is five kilometers away.
02:47
Boys have bicycles, they are free.
02:49
But she knows
02:53
her father will not allow
her to travel on her own,
02:54
even if she were posing as a boy.
03:00
"I can't let you do that.
03:05
And I don't have the time
to walk you there and back.
03:08
Sorry, it is impossible."
03:12
She gets very upset.
03:15
But a miracle happened.
03:18
A long-distance relative
offers to teach her
03:21
ninth- and tenth-grade curricula
03:24
during summer vacations.
03:27
This is how she completed
her matriculation.
03:29
The girl whom I am talking about to you
03:34
is me, Shameem,
who is talking before you now.
03:38
(Applause)
03:42
Throughout centuries, people
have been fighting for their identity.
03:49
People have been loved, privileged,
because of their identity,
03:53
their nationality, their ethnicity.
03:58
Again, people have been hated, denied,
04:00
because of their nationality,
their identity,
04:04
their race, their gender, their religion.
04:08
Identity determines your position
in society, wherever you live.
04:12
So if you ask me, I would say
I hate this question of identity.
04:17
Millions of girls in this world
are being denied their basic rights
04:23
because of being female.
04:29
I would have faced the same,
if I hadn't been raised as a boy.
04:31
I was determined to continue my studies,
to learn, to be free.
04:38
After my schooling, even enrolling
in college was not easy for me.
04:44
I went on a three-day hunger strike.
04:50
(Laughter)
04:53
Then, I got permission for college.
04:54
(Laughter)
04:57
(Applause)
04:59
In that way, I completed my college.
05:01
Two years later, when the time came
for me to go to university,
05:06
my father turned his eyes,
his attention, to my younger brothers.
05:11
They need to be in school,
secure jobs and support the family.
05:16
And as a woman, my place was to be home.
05:22
But, I don't give up.
05:27
I sign up for a two-year program
to become a lady health visitor.
05:29
Then I hear about Thardeep
Rural Development Program,
05:34
a non-profit organization
working to empower rural communities.
05:38
I sneak away.
05:44
I travel five hours
to interview for a position.
05:45
It is the first time I am the farthest
from my home I have ever been.
05:51
I am closest to my freedom
I have ever been.
05:56
Luckily, I got the job,
06:00
but the hardest part is facing my father.
06:02
(Laughter)
06:06
Relatives are already scaring him
06:08
about his daughter wandering off,
06:12
teasing him with talk
of his daughter crossing the border.
06:16
When I return home,
06:21
I want nothing more than just
to accept the position in Thardeep.
06:23
So that night, I packed
all my things in a bag,
06:29
and I walked into
my father's room and told him,
06:34
"Tomorrow morning,
the bus is going to come in.
06:40
If you believe in me,
06:43
if you believe in me,
06:44
you will wake me up
and take me to the bus station.
06:46
If you don't, I'll understand."
06:52
Then I went to sleep.
06:55
The next morning, my father
was standing beside me
06:57
to take me to the bus stop.
07:02
(Applause)
07:04
That day, I understood
the importance of words.
07:08
I understood how words affect our hearts,
07:13
how words play
an important role in our lives.
07:17
I understood words
are more powerful than fighting.
07:22
At TRDP, I saw there was a Pakistan
which I didn't know,
07:27
a country much more complex
than I had realized.
07:33
Until that, I thought
I had a difficult life.
07:38
But here, I saw what women in other parts
of Pakistan were experiencing.
07:41
It really opened my eyes.
07:49
Some women had 11 children
but nothing to feed them.
07:51
For getting water, they would walk
three hours every day to wells.
07:57
The nearest hospital was at least
32 kilometers away.
08:03
So if a woman is in labor,
08:08
she travels by camel
to get to the hospital.
08:10
The distance is great;
she may die on her way.
08:15
So now, this became
more than just a job for me.
08:19
I discovered my power.
08:24
Now, as I was getting salary,
08:28
I started sending back money to my home.
08:30
Relatives and neighbors
were noticing this.
08:33
Now they started to understand
the importance of education.
08:36
By that time, some other parents
started sending their daughters to school.
08:42
Slowly, it became easier and acceptable
08:50
for young women to be in college.
08:54
Today, there isn't a single girl
out of school in my village.
08:57
(Applause)
09:03
Girls are doing jobs
in health sites, even in police.
09:08
Life was good.
09:13
But somewhere in my heart,
09:15
I realized that my region,
beyond my village
09:17
needs further change.
09:23
This was also the time
when I joined Acumen Fellowship.
09:26
There, I met leaders like me
across the country.
09:30
And I saw they are taking
risks in their lives.
09:35
I started to understand
09:40
what leadership really means.
09:44
So I decided to go back to my region
09:47
and take a position as a teacher
in a remote school,
09:51
a school that I have to reach by bus --
09:56
two hours traveling,
every morning and evening.
10:00
Though it was hard, on my first day I knew
10:05
I made the right decision.
10:10
The first day I walked into the school,
10:13
I saw all these little Shameems
staring back at me --
10:16
(Laughter)
10:20
with dreams in their eyes,
10:22
the same dream of freedom
which I had in my childhood.
10:24
So the girls are eager to learn,
but the school is understaffed.
10:29
Girls sit hopeful,
10:34
learn nothing,
10:38
and they leave.
10:39
I can't bear to see this happening.
10:40
There was no turning back.
10:43
I found my purpose.
10:46
I enlisted a few of my friends
to help me to teach.
10:49
I'm introducing my girls
to the outside world
10:54
by extracurricular activities and books.
10:58
I share with them the profiles
of the world's best leaders,
11:02
like Martin Luther King
and Nelson Mandela.
11:06
Last year, a few of our students
went to college.
11:10
For me, I never stop studying.
11:15
Today, I'm working to complete
my PhD in education --
11:19
(Applause)
11:24
which will allow me to gain
a management position
11:27
in the school system,
11:32
and I will be able to make more decisions
11:34
and play a pivotal role in the system.
11:37
I believe that without
educating the girls,
11:42
we may not make world peace.
11:46
We may not reduce child marriage.
11:49
We may not reduce infant mortality rate.
11:52
We may not reduce maternal mortality rate.
11:56
For this, we have to continuously
12:00
and collectively work together.
12:04
At least I am playing my role,
12:08
though the destination is not close.
12:11
The road is not easy.
12:15
But I have dreams in my eyes,
12:16
and I am not going to look back now.
12:19
Thank you.
12:24
(Applause)
12:25

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About the speaker:

Shameem Akhtar - Writer, social worker
Shameem Akhtar is a teacher working to empower girls in Sindh, a province in the southeast of Pakistan.

Why you should listen

Shameem Akhtar is a dedicated and enthusiastic development professional, with special interest in the field of gender, education, social mobilization, emergency/relief, management and literature. She is also engaged in research studies in rural development, doing PhD work at the University of Sindh. She is a member of the Individual Land Organization (Friedrich Naumann Stiftung) and was selected by Acumen Pakistan Fellows 2015 for their one-year course.

Akhtar frequently contributes to print media and literary magazines, work that has brought her close to the study of important social issues like malnutrition, child labor, marginalization and other core problems of the province. She has been active in the training of teachers, children, women and other segments of society in the fields of education, health, livelihood and disaster management under the banner of prestigious organizations in the social service sector.

More profile about the speaker
Shameem Akhtar | Speaker | TED.com