Montana State University

Spring 2009

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Mountains and Minds

Fozia Naseer hopes to change the world, one girl at a time April 27, 2009 by Anne Pettinger • Published 04/27/09

Photo by Kelly Gorham
Photo by Kelly Gorham

The 26-year-old Naseer is a native of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir and now at MSU on a scholarship funded by the university and the Central Asia Institute. She says few girls or women in her country now are able to receive an education. She hopes to change that.

In between fielding cell phone calls at a popular Bozeman coffee shop-it's clear from spending even a short amount of time with Naseer that she is quick to make friends-Naseer explained the great need for educational resources in Pakistan.

"The teachers in Pakistan are not really educated, and they have no new methods of instruction," Naseer explained. "They have just one book to use."

Teachers at girls' schools in Pakistan in particular need to be better trained, Naseer said, so that they can make the students' lessons and assignments more engaging.

"I want to train teachers in Pakistan to do more creative activities with kids and to make the studies really interesting," said Naseer, who has been taking classes at MSU since last fall. She also wants to encourage outdoor activities and community involvement, as well as more parental involvement.

"If we can teach or educate one girl, we can educate one family."-Fozia Naseer
When Naseer finishes at MSU, she plans to travel to the 17 schools in her region and train teachers at each one for 10 to 15 days at a time. She will do this as an employee of the Central Asia Institute, the Bozeman-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since it was founded in 1996 by Greg Mortenson, the Bozeman man who has garnered international attention for his work and his book, Three Cups of Tea, the organization has built nearly 75 schools that have educated more than 25,000 students in those countries. In addition to building schools, the CAI also provides ongoing teacher training programs and student scholarships, establishes libraries and provides temporary education in regions where natural disasters or crises have occurred.

"Our plan for training girls' teachers could really change a lot of things in my country," Naseer said.

Naseer's experience with girls' education in Pakistan was far from usual, even before she came to the U.S.

In fact, Naseer went to the same school her brother attended, making her one of just a handful of girls in her region who attended a school for boys. While it was better for her than the girls' school would have been, she said it still wasn't ideal.

But Naseer said she was lucky to come from a family that was supportive of her education as she was growing up.

Though her mother was uneducated, Naseer said she pushed her to work hard in school.

"I would want to sit and watch TV, but my mom said, 'No, you must concentrate on your studies,'" Naseer said.

Her uncle, Raja Ilyas Khan, who has been the head of Naseer's household since her father's death when she was young, was also supportive of her education. But when Genevieve Chabot, a staff member from the Central Asia Institute, asked Khan if Naseer could travel to Bozeman to study at MSU, he resisted.

"He was just so concerned about my safety," Naseer explained.

Just six weeks before classes were to start, and after many discussions with Chabot and her husband, Doug Chabot, Khan agreed that Naseer could study at MSU. That made Naseer the first woman from her village to visit the United States.

In addition to financial support from the CAI, MSU offered Naseer a full scholarship for the year and has extended that offer for a second year.

Naseer has jumped into Bozeman life enthusiastically. She is taking classes in Taekwondo, and for the first time in her life she has learned to ride a bicycle and has gone horseback riding. She grins widely at the mention of her favorite local restaurant, La Parrilla.

Photo by Deidre Eitel courtesy of Tom Eitel
Photo by Deidre Eitel courtesy of Tom Eitel

"Here you have the freedom to do whatever you want," Naseer said. "I'm trying to experience everything."

Genevieve Chabot expects that the investment MSU and the Central Asia Institute is making in Naseer will pay dividends when she returns home.

"When I met Fozia, I learned her story," Chabot said. "I saw this incredibly strong young woman. I saw that if we gave her support, she would take it forward."

Naseer and Chabot plan to work together to communicate with girls and women in the region, which historically has been a challenge for the CAI.

Social mores in the rural, conservative Muslim areas in which the institute works dictate that men and women should not speak to one another. But because the CAI emphasizes grassroots work and community empowerment, communicating with both men and women in these rural communities is essential.

"We also focus on girls' education," Naseer said, echoing the philosophy of the Central Asia Institute: "If we can teach or educate one girl, we can educate one family..." And, teaching girls about the importance of education can be passed down from generation to generation, she said.

Chabot's work with the CAI, as its first female field staff, has helped make communication possible. However, because she does not speak Urdu, Chabot needs a translator. That's where Naseer can come in.

"They need someone who can understand the language," Naseer said. "I can translate for Genevieve. I can ask questions."

It's likely that Naseer, who already has earned degrees in law, political science and education, will become a natural leader in her community, Chabot said.

"She's probably one of the most educated, highly driven women in her region," Chabot said, adding that Naseer could do "amazing" things in Kashmir.

Naseer predicts that helping families understand the importance of education ultimately will provide more freedom and economic opportunities for girls and their families.

"It will change the culture," she said. "If you are educated, your mind will be totally changed. You will think ahead. You will think, 'I want to do something for my family, for my children.'

"Without education, you are nothing."