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