Montana State University

Women's work: MSU's Chabot brings female voice to Central Asia Institute

September 18, 2008 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service


Genevieve Chabot, a doctoral candidate at MSU and International Program Manager for the Central Asia Institute, works with a student enrolled in one of the CAI's schools. Photo courtesy of Sarfraz Khan/Central Asia Institute.   High-Res Available

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Montana State University doctoral candidate Genevieve Chabot has helped the Central Asia Institute speak to the Pakistani and Afghani women it serves.

Before Chabot joined the staff of the CAI, it was nearly impossible for the organization's workers to talk to the women of those countries about what they believed their villages needed.

Social mores in the rural, conservative Muslim areas in which the Bozeman-based Institute works dictate that men and women should not speak to one another, and the CAI had no female field staff. But because the CAI emphasizes grassroots work and community empowerment, communicating with both men and women in these rural communities was essential.

So when Chabot, now 29, met Central Asia Institute founder Greg Mortenson about a year-and-a-half ago, it quickly became clear that Chabot could be a valuable asset to the organization. Chabot's background in education gave her the academic credentials for the work, and her experiences working as a science teacher with Bozeman's Traveling School provided her with insights into other cultures and demonstrated her ease with foreign travel. Mortenson invited her to visit some of the schools in Pakistan that the Central Asia Institute had built.

Chabot did so, and she said everything quickly fell into place after that.

"Everything I have done in my life, everything came together and smacked me in the face when I met Greg and went over to Pakistan," said Chabot, who then accepted a job as CAI's International Program Manager. "I felt like I have been training for it. It all came perfectly together."

The Central Asia Institute's mission is to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Since its inception in 1996, the non-profit 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.

That mission has meshed well with Chabot's background as an educator.

Chabot came to Bozeman in 1997 to earn her undergraduate degree in elementary education, then went on to earn a master's in science education at MSU. Now, she is working on her doctorate in curriculum and instruction through MSU's Center for Learning and Teaching in the West. During graduate school, she studied abroad for two separate years, in South America and Africa. Her areas of interest, she said, have long been tied to the sorts of work the CAI performs.

"I'm kind of a rural, indigenous population worker," she said.

And in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chabot said, the need for education is great.

"There have never been schools in some of these areas before," she said.

The process is lengthy, though. The institute works not only to spend the time and resources to empower local teachers, but also to spend time with people in each community to see what its members actually need and desire.

At first, Chabot said, she wanted to simply do more.

"(Mortenson) wanted me to start focusing on the quality of education, and I wanted to get stuff done. But I found I needed to slow down. They need an expert in the field of education to discuss what these communities really need. My primary job for the next two years will be to sit down with these women and ask them what they need. My job is to build relationships."

Chabot has traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan six times in the past year, and her visits last anywhere from three weeks to three months.

Though it was initially tough for Chabot to put aside some of her immediate goals -- "we're so used to doing things here in the U.S.," Chabot said -- she's come to believe in the process.

"I'm embracing (this process) because it's working," she said. "I'm hearing from (the women) what they need."

Another female staff member may soon join the staff of the Central Asia Institute in Pakistan, bringing with her an even closer perspective on life in the region.

Fozia Naseer, 26, arrived in Bozeman in time for the start of the fall semester at MSU, where she will be taking classes this year.

She's the first woman from her village in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to visit the United States, and getting here was no easy feat.

Chabot and her husband, Doug Chabot, had to first convince Naseer's uncle, Raja Ilyas Khan, who is the head of her household, that Naseer should be allowed to go to the U.S.

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

Just six weeks before school started, Khan agreed that Naseer could study at MSU.

And though Bozeman is decidedly not Pattika Balseri, Naseer's village in Kashmir, Naseer said she is feeling comfortable in the university town.

"Everyone is so friendly here, and the mountains are beautiful," she said.

In addition to financial support from the CAI, MSU offered Naseer a full scholarship for the year, and she's taking courses this semester in international communications and English composition, as well as being tutored in using computers.

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, who has already earned degrees in law, political science, and education, could 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. "It would be amazing what she could do."

Like Naseer, when Chabot is finished with her degree at MSU - she's currently writing her dissertation -- she plans to focus on the work of the CAI full-time.

"I've enjoyed being a woman there (in Pakistan and Afghanistan)," she said. "It's needed. I'm helping to empower the women of those countries."

Genevieve Chabot, gwchabot@gmail.com; or Fozia Naseer, fozia.naseer@yahoo.com