The Media Lab’s conversation series today features Pakistani social entrepreneur Khalida Brohi, founder and executive director of the Sughar Empowerment Society. She’s a director’s fellow at the Media Lab, resident at the Center for Civic Media for the next year.
Khalida offers the theme of “building bridges between the indigenous and modern world” as the theme of her talk, and of her life the last few years. She recently attended Google’s Zeitgeist conference and was totally overwhelmed by the experience of being fitted for Google Glass by Eric Schmidt. She realized that, twenty days before, she was sitting in her rural village in the mountains of Pakistan, with her grandfather and uncle. How does one resolve these two worlds?
Khalida’s mother was married at age nine, and left her home to live with Khalida’s father as a small girl. Before her marriage, her mother had never seen a school building. She lived her entire life in a single village. She explains that it wasn’t just that her mother was forced into a marriage – her father was as well, when his older brothers refused to be married to Khalida’s mother.
By being forced into a marriage, Khalida’s father felt like his manhood was threatened and left the village. By leaving, he was able to go to a boarding school and then to university. At university, he experienced something remarkable: girls who could read! Girls who could talk about politics! Her father considered taking another wife, marrying a college girl. But he realized he could educate the girl who became his wife at age nine, who was home crying for her mother. So “he held her hand” and taught her to read and to write.
“My mother thought the world ended at the borders of the village – it doesn’t end there!” Through reading, her mother ended up with a much broader view of the world than most women in tribal areas. Ultimately, her mother demanded that her family leave the village so the children could be educated, and her father had to obey, because he was in love. Other villagers protested: “What kind of a man are you, listening to your wife?”
Khalida was born in a city and lived in the city until she was five years old. But her father worried that his children were being spoiled. “I saw your brother wearing his shoes, I saw you with books in your hands – I’m spoiling you kids.” Her father remembered the hardships of his past: sharing a bus with goats that defecated on him as he travelled to school, completing his homework by kerosene lamps. Her father moved the family home, but helped Khalida split her time between the village and Karachi.
Living in the village, Khalida revelled in the beauty of cultures and traditions. But she also found herself wrestling with the uncomfortable aspects of her culture: child marriage, exchange marriages, vanni and honor killings. “Apart from the beauty, there are other things in the culture that are very dark.” Khalida understood the darkness on a very personal level when she returned from pre-medical classes to the village at age 16, and discovered that one of her friends had been killed in the name of honor, because she had wanted to marry someone she liked.
Khalida realized how different her experience was from that of other women in her village, and realized that part of her obligations to her family were to come home to her community and address these issues. She launched a campaign: the WAKE UP campaign against Honor Killings. The major manifestation of the campaign was a Facebook group, which she managed from the single PC shared by the ten kids in her family’s house. “If I washed dishes and made dinner, I could have 10 minutes on the computer.” The campaign she led called attention to the government policies that made honor killings and exchange marriages possible. (Author’s note: I’m quoting Khalida directly as much as possible, and linking to resources I’m able to find online to provide context for practices like honor killings. These may or may not be the links Khalida would choose to explain these practices, and I will hope to work with her to link to the resources she thinks are most appropriate in the future.)
At age 18, Khalida’s campaign gained international attention, in part through support from Amnesty International. She received calls from local and international press and found herself flying to cities to give talks about her work and the movement. But the media exposure had an unintended effect: it made it impossible for her to return to her village, where people in her community accused her of being un-Islamic and banned her from the village. Living in Karachi, unable to return to Balochistan, she realized the errors she’d made:
“We were standing against values that were really meaningful to people – we didn’t listen to people’s solutions because we thought our solutions were so important. And we weren’t including the women whose fight we were fighting.” This second point was critical to Khalida – she tells us, “I’d see women with the same scars on their faces each time I came back to the village. We were trying to change policies that could take decades to change, but we needed something that was helping women instantly.”
The new plan Khalida and her team came up with started with a surprising step: “the apology project”. She met with tribal leaders and apologized for her behavior, for standing against tribal values. (Speaking after the talk, Khalida told me that this was one of the hardest things she’d ever done: sitting at a tribal council next to a man who had killed her friend and apologizing to him, and looking for a way to genuinely forgive him.) She and her team agreed to a project to benefit the community, to promote the music, language and embroidery of the community.
This proposal was quickly accepted, and Khalida paints us a picture of tribal leaders, sitting under trees, recording each other singing to retain the language and culture of the community. The projects to document music through CDs and local stories in books were successful, but the really subversive project was the embroidery project.
To promote local embroidery, Khalida and her team built a center inside the village. Women from every house came to the center for three hours each day. In Balochistan, women are generally kept in seclusion within their houses, so creating a women’s space was a radical step. And Khalida went further, using the assembly of women to teach not only embroidery, but life skills, enterprise development, what Islam says about women’s rights and how they could advocate for rights within their marriages. “Within two weeks, women who were not allowed to laugh in their houses were laughing, and laughing too much!”
The sudden change revealed too much about what was happening in the Center. Women who had never been alone together, allowed to socialize without their husbands, were gossiping, talking about their husbands, talking about women’s rights, learning to read and write. It was deeply threatening to the husbands, and three men stopped their wives from coming to the Center.
As Khalida worried that the whole thing would crash, she decided to add a market element to her work. If women participated in the training for six months, they would receive small loans to start their own embroidery businesses. Given the extreme poverty in the region, the added income was hard for husbands to refuse. To ensure a market for the embroidery, Khalida began researching the Pakistani fashion industry, and realized she could create a tribal women’s fashion brand. With press releases to Al Jazeera, BBC and others, they launched “Sughar” as a tribal fashion brand, bringing women from the villages into fashion shows in Pakistan’s biggest cities. And because fashion brought money into the villages, husbands tolerated their wives involvement in fashion.
The project has now scaled up to 23 villages. In each center, roughly 30 women come to learn from 3 trainers. TripAdvisor has just signed on to sponsor 2 new centers, and 800 women are currently involved with the program. But Khalida’s ambitions are much broader – she wants to reach a million women in 10 years, and her work at MIT as part of that ambition.
She closes her talk by showing an image of her MIT ID. “The day I received it, I spent two hours admiring how shiny the ID was.” She sent a picture of the ID to her father, and received an avalanche of text messages in response: 16 text messages about his journeys to school, in the dust, clinging to the outside of buses, walking miles at a time.
“For a second, I thought I didn’t deserve to be here. But then I thought again. I think I deserve it. I think my dad deserves it.”
Joi Ito, the Media Lab’s director, explains the logic of bringing Khalida to MIT. Because the Media Lab is supported so heavily by corporate sponsorship, there’s a tendency to carry out research that benefits companies, and sometimes to neglect projects that have primarily a social impact. “It sometimes feels like we’re making another Sharper Image catalog,” he worries, and he notes that students have often been interested in having impact in other parts of society.
When the lab tries to work on social impact projects, we have another problem, Joi notes – we often don’t understand the needs of these communities. A project to help Detroit, one of Joi’s home towns, led to strong pushback from Detroiters that the solutions Lab students and faculty were proposing were locally inappropriate. Working with people like Khalida broadens our understanding of how different communities work and encourages us to think differently about how we work with culturally distant communities, moving towards models of closer collaboration.
We’ll be posting the video from Khalida and Joi’s talk soon and I will update this post with a link to the video, including the question and answer session with the audience that followed.