This is a story that Sr. Joan McDermott sent me about two women from Sindh Province, Pakistan. They are Shamshad and Shumila – a mother and daughter. The story reflects a reality in the culture of that country, namely, the custom of arranged marriages, and the lack of educational opportunities for women.
He would sometimes joke her about how lucky she was to live the quiet countryside,far from the pollution and noise of the town. But he knew very well that his wife missed the conveniences of a town, especially the chance to have a better education. He was indebted too to the education Shamshad had been to access.
Shamshad, the mother, grew up in a town and because of that had the opportunity to go to Primary School. She was a bright girl. She enjoyed school and did very well in her studies. But, according to custom, at the age of eighteen a marriage was arranged for her to a farmer living in a remote country area, far from the amenities of city or town. It was there she settled down with her husband and it was there they brought up their family. Shamshad’s husband, Imram, is a steady, hardworking man with a good sense of humour. He would sometimes joke her about how lucky she was to live in the quiet countryside, far from her pollution and noise of the town. But he knew very well that his wife missed the conveniences of a town, especially the chance to have a better education. He was indebted too to the education Shamshad had been able to access.
Imram had not gone to any school, so it was she who was called on to read or write something whenever the need arose in the home or the locality. Shamshad was also involved with her parish. Sr. Joan writes, “Three years ago when our parish had confirmations Shamshad helped out. Our Catechists went to the Christians in the towns and villages to prepare them. In each smaller Community one or two volunteers helped with the preparation. Shamshad was the one in her village and did a fine job.”
But Shamshad’s activities were not confined to helping in the parish. She was especially active in pursuing possibilities of further education for her daughter, Shumila. As we have seen, Shumila’s opportunities for education were slim because the family lived far from a town. But Shamshad decided, against all the odds, that her daughter would not be denied the opportunities that she herself had not been able to avail of due to her early marriage. It was not an easy road for the young girl, but it seems that she shared her mother’s determination. After Primary School she went on to Middle School – the first girl in her village to go further than Primary School. Middle School was quite a distance away, but she walked back and forth each day in the scorching heat. The difficulty arose when it came to High School because the nearest one was fifteen kilometres away and there was no bus or train. At first she stayed with relatives in the town, but this did now work out. Instead she had to resort to “distance learning” from home. When it was essential for her to be present the family hired a rickshaw.
When this happened one of the family had to accompany her back and forth, but they did it. She passed her exams but her grades were not very good, but she did pass and now she was very anxious to go further with her studies. Her great desire was to do nursing but, because her grades were not high, and there was a great demand for places in the nursing school, this was a further obstacle. But Shamshad was not finished yet. Like the Canaanite woman in the gospel (Lk 19:10), who begged Jesus for the life of her daughter and would not take no for an answer, so it was with Shamshad. She too had the life of her daughter in mind as she begged, cajoled, prayed and strove with all her might that the girl would be admitted to Midwifery Training School. That dream came true for Shumila last September when the Sisters running the Midwifery School gave her a place.
It was not easy to get her this place, but, because of her mother’s pleas we had to try. We explained her circumstances to the Sisters, and Shumila’s great achievements in getting this far and, taking all this into account, they very kindly accepted her. They were hopeful that, by living in the hostel, she would be able to study hard and be able for the training. Now, however, other problems arose: the expenses for fees, uniform, shoes, books etc. Thanks to our generous benefactors at home in Ireland this obstacle too was overcome and we were able to make it possible for her to study. The perseverance and pleas of her valiant mother paid off and now we hope and pray that Shumila will be able to finish her training.
Shamshad is just one of the many admirable women in the Pakistani country-side. They work from dawn to dusk cotton picking, harvesting barley, picking chillies, drawing water, cutting fire-wood and finding grass to feed their animals. They do all that in addition to th e household chores that go with raining a family: washing, cooking, cleaning etc. When harvest-time is over they need to earn some money. They turn to handicrafts, like making banners, embroidery or stitching bed covers. This is to help supplement the cost of running a home and trying to educate their children, against all odds.
We wish every blessing and success to Shumila as she begins her new studies, and as we do, we trust that the time will come when young women in Pakistan can look forward to education as a right. Should that come about, the happy outcome will in some part be due to the courage and determination of women like her and her mother who refused to allow apparently impossible obstacles to prevent them for reaching their goal.