Maryam Bibi serves homemade lunch to SEEC workers in south Arlington.
Maryam Bibi is in Arlington for two reasons. First is to raise funds for girls' education in Pakistan where she lives. "It costs about 800 rupees per month to support all of the costs for one student, including teacher's salary and books. This is about 8-10 American dollars. "Currently we have two thousand three hundred and some girls enrolled in our NGO sponsored schools. Education is my passion; it gives girls the ability to think, analyze." The second reason is to develop trust and increase understanding. "You breathe the same air as we do." Bibi said. In Pakistan, despite the dollars poured in, the perception of America is not good and in America the same is true due to the Taliban. But there is a lot of goodness in both places. "Truth and justice don't have boundaries."
Bibi was lucky that her father was courageous to get his own daughters educated in Pakistan. "He had a job and was educated. One of my sisters is a doctor." But when Bibi got married, her struggle was within her own family. "I was not allowed to work. They feared an honor issue. "Why should you work outside the home?" Her mother used to say women's income is haram (illegitimate) as opposed to halal (legitimate.) "And that is the reason she would stop me with this argument."
"I didn't like to be dependent on my in-laws. I was very helpless; mobility was an issue and I had no money of my own." But she didn't let it stop her from trying to get a job. "But every time I got work I have to listen to my in-laws." Finally the seventh time they didn't support her, but they didn't stop her. "I never looked back."
Twenty-five years ago, Bibi says that she realized the situation in Pakistan. "I could see it was only men in mosques. This was just my thinking." Later, after a number of experiences with projects that taught her about the needs of women and gave her managerial skills, Bibi founded Khwendo Kor, an NGO in Pakistan to sponsor education for girls. "In my own village I realized a lot is needed for girls’ education, to stand on their own feet and to have their own opinions."
She said women have to collaborate to improve their own conditions. "It's like a little bird in a nest; you have to work for it." Bibi said that their country is conditioned in the way to reinforce social norms that don't support education for the girls.
She started going to villages to see whether they would be open to investing in girl’s education. "We visit 30-40 villages to select one ready for girls’ education. There were 14-15 criteria." Bibi says once they allowed Bibi to come she had to work hard to overcome the mistrust that was deeply entrenched with the local chiefs in control.
They had to build trust slowly in the villages. "They considered us as alien coming from a different village, driving a car, etc. It would take 3-4 months to allow people to meet us. We would ask really difficult questions. Why no girls in school? How many of your girls die in childbirth? How many boys' schools do you have (3)? How many girls' schools (0)?
"Engaging them was really important. She says her sister would go to the villages and see the sick children. "I would say to the men, ‘Why are you bringing your girls to the doctor but not allowing them to be educated?’" They would say to her, “Niece, my goodness, you are right. But God has made us poor. This is our fate. And this is your fate." She thought, “Don't you see we are the same people. What's the difference? Education."
Bibi stresses to be successful with girls' education it was necessary that the villages make the decisions. They decide where the school will be. "A school is not a building … maybe under a shed." Who would be the teacher? How would they provide for the security of the teacher who could be a target for kidnapping or anger from anti-education villagers?
"We give the village people the task; they do the job." She says when the school was being attacked by the Taliban, the villagers would call and say, 'don't come until 11 today.'" Only after the village buy-in would Khwendo Kor go in with the money to pay the teachers.
While in Arlington, she is staying with Margaret Miller who worked with Afghan refugees in Bibi's hometown of Peshawar in the 1980s. But they only met locally coincidentally in 2017. Bibi has participated in cooking and delivering meals with Miller at the outside pavilion for Shirlington Employment and Education (SEEC) workers with Rock Spring UCC members. Bibi says in Pakistan they have a more hands-off approach to feeding the poor and she thinks she will take the American way back with her.
Bibi says religion has misused power. She explains it can be used for bad or good and in the name of Islam a lot of bad has happened. "It is very powerful but not used for women's empowerment." Bibi says she gives a lot of importance to personal experiences and to her recent interfaith interactions. How can Islam claim to be universal? I think God has a role in everything. It is just humans being equal."