World Pulse

Sister Zeph: Classroom Revolutionary

Kim Crane
Posted September 22, 2015 from United States

Her enemies see girls learning as a threat. Sister Zeph sees Pakistan's greatest hope.

Sister Zeph | Pakistan

“If we hadn’t hidden ourselves inside in our home and locked the doors we wouldn’t be alive today.”

The teacher, activist, and World Pulse member who calls herself Sister Zeph recounts this terrifying moment from 2005. Gunmen fired shots into her home in Gujranwala, Pakistan, targeting Sister Zeph and her family. Although the shooters never identified themselves, their actions made their views on girls and education clear.

Seven years after this incident, the attempted assassination of another activist, Malala Yousafzai, brought the struggle over girls’ rights to education in Pakistan into the forefront of global public consciousness. In 2014, 16-year-old Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her courageous education advocacy, which continued even after she recovered from a Taliban gunshot wound to the head. She emphasized from the stage of her Nobel lecture: “I am not a lone voice.”

Every time Sister Zeph opens the doors of the Zephaniah Free School to its 200 students, she strengthens the chorus of voices for change in her country. Roughtly 5.5 million school-aged children in Pakistan are not in school—the second highest number in the world. More than half of Pakistan’s out-of-school children are girls. These are the statistics Sister Zeph is up against.

There was a time when Sister Zeph struggled in isolation with the dangers and challenges of her chosen profession, as the sole teacher for over 100 girls. “I used to cry in my loneliness because every passing day my workload was increasing.”

She would go to her full time job during the day to pay the school’s expenses, and teach classes in the evening. She faced a constant uphill battle as she went door to door in her neighborhood, trying to convince local families to allow their daughters to attend her school. Lacking a classroom, she taught her classes in open air. She struggled to find financial support to properly equip her school, which has always been open to all free of charge.

Several years ago, when Sister Zeph began connecting to the world through the Internet, things started to shift. She calls her computer her “magic box” for the new world of opportunity it opened up for her.

Sister Zeph taught herself English and other subjects online, allowing her to transcend her family’s lack of resources and formal education. She created a Facebook page, which drew new supporters and resources to her cause. She joined World Pulse, which she refers to as “a garden of beautiful souls.” Instantly, a global community opened up to embrace her with encouragement and recognition. She was recently featured in the documentary Flight of the Falcons for Channel NewsAsia.

Her biggest turning point, she says, came last year, when she received the Lynn Syms Prize, a generous monetary award, for her work.

Sculptor and philanthropist Lynn Syms established this prize in 2014 in partnership with World Pulse. The award honors a grassroots leader who is elevating the concerns of her community and serving as an inspiration to community leaders elsewhere. The prize was introduced as part of the Women Weave the Web Campaign, which crowdsourced the wisdom of grassroots women leaders on issues digital inclusion and empowerment.

“Using digital tools, my girls are learning what we cannot teach them.

Lynn Syms says the grassroots aspect of the prize is very important to her. Sister Zeph is already working in her community. She is there for these women and girls on a day-to-day basis, putting all of her heart and resources into this work. With additional resources, she is ready to lead change on a large scale. The selection committee chose Sister Zeph out of an impressive pool of applicants from all over the world.

Sister Zeph’s education career began at the young age of 13. A teacher humiliated Sister Zeph in front of her class, prompting her to walk out of her school for good. She began teaching herself and her sister, and then gradually taking on students until she had established her own school. She was convinced even as a teenager that there was a more compassionate approach to education than what she had experienced.

“My purpose,” she says, “is not only to teach students to read books and to get degrees. I am making them change makers; I teach them to recognize their calling because when we come to know our purpose of life it makes us successful.”

Lynn Syms says Sister Zeph’s start as an educator took “real guts and real determination and belief in herself,” qualities which Syms sees shining through Sister Zeph's work with the Zephaniah Free School today.

Sister Zeph believes strongly that everyone should be able to access free, quality education. Her school provides educational opportunities for girls as young as 3 and women as old as 70. Last year, Sister Zeph’s own 65-year-old mother became her student, learning to read for the first time.

Since she was awarded the prize, Sister Zeph has purchased a school building with two rooms. She plans to expand this and increase security for the girls. Today the school employs several teachers, including a former student who is working towards her master’s degree. The school is equipped for vocational training and has a computer center. She plans to create more computer centers in nearby villages. Everything is growing. Especially, Sister Zeph emphasizes, her hopes and dreams for what is possible.

“Can you imagine?” she asks, “my students ask me questions about lava; they ask me to tell them about the history of Egypt; they pray for peace in Syria, they can tell you so much about the culture of the USA; they want to make electricity themselves… Using digital tools, my girls are learning what we cannot teach them.” She says they are challenging their assumptions and becoming thinkers.

Cross-cultural partnerships with World Pulse members provide a unique opportunity to enrich students’ learning. Iffat teaches Sister Zeph's students how to use computers from the Netherlands. Urmila covers health topics from India. Malee teaches art from the US. And an Internet connection makes it all possible.

Digital tools have expanded Sister Zeph's curriculum, and also her network of support.

“I do not feel alone,” says Sister Zeph. “I know there are people who understand my cause, and they are with me in this battle to educate and empower the girls.”

Unfortunately, the violent attack in 2005 was not the last. In 2013, Sister Zeph’s sister and mother were injured in another attack. People have thrown rocks at the school, put glue in the locks, and spread rumors about her.

Just this month, her mother suggested leaving the city after being harassed by a group of men. Her father, who was once fearful of Sister Zeph’s outspoken stand, has since come around to her cause. He supports his daughter's decision to stay and fight to achieve the goal of empowering women.

While the enemies of education speak through bullets and intimidation, Sister Zeph speaks through her students’ success.

Girls who otherwise would be married off young are now going to university, becoming teachers, nurses, and police officers. They are studying computer science, English, and finance. Many, she says, will become mothers who will advocate for their daughters. Each girl’s education impacts the lives of her parents, siblings, children, husband, and in-laws. Sister Zeph is proud of the changes she sees in the families of educated girls. She believes her country too will change for the better.

Sister Zeph still sometimes fears for her safety. She still experiences heartbreak whenever she can’t convince a family to allow their daughter to go to school. She still puts in long hours, including a day job that helps fund her work at the school. When her work is at its most challenging, she summons her 13-year-old self: the girl who recognized her worth enough to protect it, who knew her potential enough to nurture it.

“Nothing can keep me away from my calling,” she says. “I was born to spread education. I will do it as long as I am alive.”

Comments 26

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Precious Nkeih
Sep 23, 2015
Sep 23, 2015

This is so inspiring! May more families send their daughters to school so they can get an education. Being educated is being elevated.

Sister Zeph
Sep 24, 2015
Sep 24, 2015

thank you dear Precious 

Your comments are very encouraging, we will have to make it possible for all of our girls to get education and we will do it 

Olanike
Sep 26, 2015
Sep 26, 2015

Today, I join the World Pulse community, your family and all the courageous women and girls (who you are giving hope for a brighter future) in your community beyond to celebrate your bravery, passion and commitment to positive change. You are an inspiration and I pray for your safety as you forge ahead.

Best wishes, Olanike (Greengirl)

Sister Zeph
Sep 26, 2015
Sep 26, 2015

oh thanks a lot, I am very proud to be a world pulse community member, and I welcome you here too, here we women from around the world are trying make our world a better place. thank you for being so nice 

Olanike
Sep 27, 2015
Sep 27, 2015

I am not new to World Pulse sister Zeph. Check a couple of your World Pulse posts, even the very first one and you'll observe that I've been following you in the community. Aha!

Best wishes, Greengirl.

Sister Zeph
Oct 09, 2015
Oct 09, 2015

Oh yes I remember it I am sorry, thank you for following me since a long time.

Sep 27, 2015
Sep 27, 2015
This comment has been removed by the commenter or a moderator.
Urmila Chanam
Oct 08, 2015
Oct 08, 2015

Zephaniah or Rifat is the builder of walls of the house of light for children in Pakistan. Look at her build the walls from bricks and mortar, look at the way she involves her sisters around the world to strengthen this temple of love- she truly is the epitome of strength. Every woman, irrespective of which country she comes from, should protect Rifat, shelter her, donate to her, support her and share her story because her story is that of fearlessness, love and light. I truly love you sister Zephaniah and I am with you.

In solidarity,

Urmila Chanam,

Founder,

Breaking the Silence

India

Sister Zeph
Oct 08, 2015
Oct 08, 2015

Oh my dear Urmila thank you so much you are so sweet , I love to hear from you,you are my inspiration. 

Angelica F
Oct 13, 2015
Oct 13, 2015

Dear Sister Zeph,

I am so glad I got to read this incredible and inspiring story! You have shown such courage and ambition, and your hard work to educate girls will help change the world! Thank you for all of the work you do. I wanted to ask: before you could afford a classroom and had to teach outside, did you feel that you and your students were threatened by being so exposed? How has being inside a classroom changed your experience? 

You have shown me how powerful the internet can be, and I look forward to hearing more from and about you.

Sister Zeph
Oct 13, 2015
Oct 13, 2015

Hello dear Angelica 

Thank you for reading my story I am very thankful to you for such encouraging comments, As you have read above we were having so many threats, our class room was in danger every day, it was like a fun for the people in surrounding to create problem for us while studying 

But now we feel more secure, there is no worry, we have more projects now, and we are not scared for our equipment's security also

These are two very small rooms so now we are building a proper class room which not only give, us complete security but it will gives us enough space for the all students 

Thank you so being so kind 

Anita Kiddu Muhanguzi
Oct 15, 2015
Oct 15, 2015

This is very inspirational story. Am blessed to be part of the world pulse community because I meet very courageous and inspirational women. Thank you for your efforts and am sure you are blessing the girls in your community. May God continue to reward you abundantly for your efforts.

Sister Zeph
Oct 15, 2015
Oct 15, 2015

Hello my dear Anita 

Thank you so much for such nice comments ,yes world pulse is a blessing for all of us, it connects us, so that we can share our knowledge and stories with each other 

Looking forward to hear from you more 

amwanzo
Oct 22, 2015
Oct 22, 2015

Zeph with this kind of toil mum we cant let this opportunity go. The world must change by our girls in the sub-saharan africa going to school  and not only schooling but playing equal roles with boys in the society.

Sister Zeph
Nov 05, 2015
Nov 05, 2015

Thank you for your kind comments and for your determination to get equality for the girls , yes we will not stop and we will keep working to get girls education and skills 

thanks you my dear 

SEDAMZG
Oct 27, 2015
Oct 27, 2015

I am happy to know Sister Zeph Founder of Zephaniah Women Education and Empowerment Foundation( ZWEEF)  and this encouraged me to protect education specially for girls. I am also proud to be the part of this World Pulse community.

Best Wishes for  Miss. Zeph managing her Zephaniah Women Education and Empowerment Foundation.

Abdul Qayyum

CEO -SEDAMZG

PAkistan

Sister Zeph
Nov 05, 2015
Nov 05, 2015

Dear Abdul Qayyum thank you for the appreciation, yes we are very lucky because are a part of the world Pulse,

Sangita Thapa
Oct 29, 2015
Oct 29, 2015

My dear Zephaniah, you truly are an inspiration, a ray of hope for girls' education not only in Pakistan but globally. Yours is a story of hope and positive energy! May God bless you with more strength and power to continue your journey. 

Love,

Sangita    

Sister Zeph
Nov 05, 2015
Nov 05, 2015

My dear Sangita this is so nice of you , I am very glad to hear from you, thank you for giving me encouragement to go a head so that I can achieve my goal to teach all girls in Pakistan

Krysie Bright
Nov 03, 2015
Nov 03, 2015

This is amazzing. Its the people out there willing to risk their lives for others who make the greates impact onn the world. Thank you!

Sister Zeph
Nov 05, 2015
Nov 05, 2015

My dear friend thank you for such kind words, I believe that if our people will not be educated our lives will be in more risk ,so it is better to risk our lives for a better purpose, but I cannot achieve this goal alone I need support of the people like you,

Sara-Chris
Nov 05, 2015
Nov 05, 2015

Your story is very inspiring and i am so proud of you for giving those beautiful girls a future and hope that there is better tomorrow. You have showed them a different and better side of life by caring about their educational future. May God elevate you and those young ladies to higher levels and may He give you the strength and resources to expand your school. Be encouraged for you are a great woman and deserve a nobel piece prize. Keep on fighting.

Sister Zeph
Nov 05, 2015
Nov 05, 2015

Dear Sara

You have made my day, wow Noble Peace Prize, I wish I will be able to get that prestigious prize one day,but my real prize are all those girls who are getting education and our learning skills and are becoming independent at zeph education , and I want to get such prizes as many as I can and this is a purpose of my life

with love

Bharti Singh Chauhan
Nov 16, 2015
Nov 16, 2015

Really inspiring and Proud to know you.. you are an inspiration to many crores accross the Globe.. your work is your passion and one must take th positive note from it and follow you.. Keep it up and your hard works will pay one by one.. and you will reach the goal to keep each girl educated one day...

megbhor
Dec 05, 2015
Dec 05, 2015

We are with you sister..Very inspiring words.God Bless you.

Adeola Samuel
May 13, 2018
May 13, 2018

It's great to read about your calling and how much success you have recorded. May the Lord continue to send you all the help and resources that you need to grow and accomplish your goals.