By Malee Kenworthy
In March of 2015 I serendipitously met one of the most amazing and inspirational women of my life. She goes by Sister Zeph. Sister Zeph lives in Punjab, Pakistan where women and girls have historically been prevented from education because their place has long thought to have been in the home. Sister Zeph is changing all of that one life at time and despite being attacked and shot at a couple of times now. She is my inspiration because despite facing every kind of difficulty and circumstance she still gets up every morning and soldiers on.
When I met her three years ago I was following Malala on Facebook and I saw that Malala had shared Sister Zeph’s documentary on her page. I saw that Sister Zeph was commenting and messaged her immediately. I knew in my heart that she needed help, especially after seeing the video. To be honest I only watched half of the video at that time because it touched me so deeply and I was sad. It took me another year to finish watching that documentary. I quickly became close to Sister Zeph and some of the girls at her center and began teaching art classes to them over skype every weekend.
Exactly one year after meeting her I flew to Pakistan by myself just mere days after a suicide bomber killed himself and many others in Lahore, the city I was flying into. Before going over there it was a huge decision making process for me and Sister Zeph and I had to practically keep it a secret from everyone due to security issues. I planned the trip for months in advance and did a lot of research on Pakistan. When I was over there I learned a lot about the value of money and being grateful.
I remember one time I offered some money to her mother and sister for doing so much for me during my visit and they rejected it. I think that it is typical in America and western countries to offer money sometimes, especially if someone has been waiting on you hand and foot. It is typical, I have learned, in the east that “guest it king”. I was so humbled and touched on the third day of my visit about their hospitality that I cried. I also didn’t fully realize how bad the pollution and trash is over there until I was in it.
I got to experience firsthand just a taste of what Sister Zeph has to go through every day. In America it is easy for me to do things and even as a woman I do not give it a second thought. Over there Sister Zeph has to be think about every possible danger when she goes outside, not to mention that the pollution is so bad that it truly is difficult to breathe or sometimes even see the sky. She also has to have male accompaniment when going outside of the home and buying anything there is not as easy as it is in America. A person has to go to the market and deal with fluctuating prices and women have to deal with harassment. When I was there with her I got to experience how difficult simple things can be to accomplish and I marvel now at the fact that she has accomplished, almost single handedly, building the school, persuading people there to send their girls to her school, paying teachers’ salaries every month, dealing with harassments and threats, medical issues in the family and more.
Sister Zeph is truly an example to us all of what can be accomplished with determination, will power, vision, persistence and patience. Whenever I feel that I am struggling I think of her and realize how easy I have it where I am. She gives me the strength to keep marching on in my life. She has no choice but to be a warrior in her situation and that gives me strength even though I am on the other side of the planet. Through the relationships that women in the west forge with women in the east we will bridge a divide that exists in politics. This bridge of women’s empowerment will transform this world as we know it to be more equal and empowered and there is nothing that anyone can do to stop it. The time is now to continue connecting with one another and raising each other up and Sister Zeph shows me this every day through her actions and persistence in the face of opposition.