Arizona activist Khalida Brohi defends women’s rights

Khalida Brohi watched her cousin, Kalsoom, across the classroom through tears. They nodded.

The time had come to open the school they had dreamed of for years on the road where another cousin, Khadija, was murdered.

The school opened in 2018, 18 years after this cousin was killed on the streets of Kotri, Pakistan. It was called an honor killing, something common at the time. Brohi was 13 when it happened.

But the event marked a change for Brohi, now a world-renowned speaker, author and advocate for the rights of Pakistani women and children.

Brohi, who resides in Sedona with her husband David Barron and daughter Serafina, has opened two schools since her cousin’s murder, while running the nonprofit Sughar Foundation. It is an organization that provides socio-economic aid, training and opportunities to women in tribal communities in Pakistan.

In August 2015, Brohi opened Chai Spot in Sedona, a tea house that donates 50% of its profits to Pakistani women and children. A second location opened in New York in 2018, the same year she released her memoir, “I Should Have Honor.”

“I said to my cousin four years before the school opened, ‘what do you want to do to get revenge for your sister’s death,’ and she said, ‘I want to open a school, and I I want no one, never to be scared again. I want to teach boys to grow up to love their sisters and make memories with their sisters.”

“The weather really changes there”

Brohi grew up in the slums of Pakistan across Hyderabad and Karachi in Sindh, and her village in Balochistan. Moving across the country through more than 21 different houses, Brohi and his seven siblings lived a simple life.

But his family memories were always special. Cooking roti, chicken lollipop by the fire and picking out a new pair of plastic shoes once a year were simple and meaningful times.

She spent days running around the village, playing games with her cousins. At 4 p.m. the family gathered for chai, although it often took place several times a day. All 42 family members, Brohi said with a laugh.

“The weather is really changing there,” Brohi said. “You sit for long periods of time and think hours have passed, but it’s only been 10 minutes.”

Brohi also went to school.

Years earlier, his father, Sikander, had made the painful choice to leave his tribe. His older brother had asked for Brohi as his wife a few days before he was born. His father refused.

“That day, a year before I was born, he did the most sinful thing he could imagine: he made his father cry by raising his voice to him. But for me, defending a girl he didn’t hadn’t even held in his hands yet was the most honorable thing. He saved my life,” Brohi wrote in his memoir.

This choice allowed Sikander to put his daughters in school, a foreign thing for many Pakistani women. Brohi was one of the few girls in her first school.

“Because he left, everyone expected him to fail,” Brohi said. “They said, ‘If you educate your daughter, look what happens. They’ll tear you down for raising her.

“I couldn’t afford to buy all the books”

Huddled on the floor in a small room in front of her teacher, Brohi was reading. Everyday.

“There was this old man who had a place 20 minutes from my house,” Brohi said. “My father had a motorcycle. He’d sit me on it and take me to this guy and he’d be like, ‘Can you let my daughter in for about four o’clock?’ and this old man would let me into the shop. I couldn’t afford to buy many books, so I sat and read while he watched.

Brohi visited the old man again just two years ago, she said. Reading at the bookstore allowed Brohi to learn 5 different languages, go home and translate books to her cousins ​​in their native language.

Brohi’s love for reading sparked his love for education. Later, she became the first woman in the family to receive a college education, studying sociology in Karachi, Pakistan. She then completed a one-year fellowship program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

How an ‘honour killing’ changed everything

One seemingly ordinary night changed everything.

During a visit with her family to Kotri, Brohi discovered that her cousin, Khadija, had disappeared.

“Nobody really wanted to tell me what happened, and I kept asking, ‘where is Khadija?’

That night, Khadija’s sister rolled over in the bed they shared and whispered three life-changing words: “Khadija has been murdered.”

“It was the longest night of my entire life,” Brohi said. “I didn’t cry at all that night, but in my heart I became very angry. All my happiness was gone, my laughter. All. In the morning, my heart felt like it was on hot coals. I knew I was going to fight everyone.

Khadija was murdered because she fell in love with a man outside her tribe, Brohi said. In Pakistani culture, such a thing was considered vulgar, dishonorable.

“If you want to keep the honor of the family, you have to get rid of the dishonor,” Brohi said.

“I could create a crowd instantly”

For three years, Brohi hid in his room and wrote poetry. Poems about the pain of his cousin’s murder, poems that expressed his deep anger at honor killings. She stopped going to school until her father promised her that she could do something about her fight as long as she went to school.

Brohi discovered that over 1,000 honor killings of women were happening every year in 2011. She decided to do something about it.

Soon Brohi started sending his poetry to different organizations. Then she started reciting her poetry at conferences for the nonprofit run by her father. Soon she was invited to read his poems across Asia and eventually around the world. Each conference led to another.

Brohi’s first time on a plane was to speak at the WE CAN End Honor Killings of Women launch conference in 2006. A year later, she was invited to Australia by Oxfam to learn how to financially support its projects. There she told her story on television.

Throughout the speeches, Brohi knocked on the doors of villages, inviting women and children to protest against honor killings. But as more women and children joined his cause, anger and opposition grew.

“Anger can actually gather a lot of support instantly,” Brohi said. “I could create a crowd instantly if I provoked anger related to them. Instantly we were in the streets, shouting the names of people who had killed their daughters. We were using swear words and swearing for the tribal culture, and somehow the girl who grew up loving dancing and songs was shouting horrible things in the streets.

How Brohi changed women’s lives

Death threats bombarded Brohi’s house. Angry people had chalked his name on the walls of surrounding villages. Crumbled papers with rocks hit the vehicles parked in front of the family home. Men would often flock to the house shouting in anger. Brohi realized she had to mend the conflicts in the streets, she said.

In 2009, Brohi launched the Apology project. She revisited every village she had been to before, except this time she approached the tribal leaders to ask for forgiveness and build unity within the community. In one village in particular, the members of the tribe offered a meal, a sign of peace.

“My team went to a village and one of the men said, ‘You have to leave immediately, if the tribal leader finds out you’re going to be in big trouble,'” Brohi said. “When the tribal chief found out that we were asking for an apology, they prepared lamb and rice for us. He was the first tribal chief who accepted that we come to work in the village.

Once accepted by the village chiefs, Brohi established women’s literacy and skills development centers where women could gather and voice their fears. This gave birth to Brohi’s next step: creating Sughar Centers and the Sughar Foundation.

“Every woman is competent and confident”

Sugar, she said, means skilled and confident women. Women in Pakistan are rarely called Sughar, Brohi said.

“I started to ask myself: ‘why is this title so rare?’ Every woman is skilled and confident. In fact, they don’t have the resources to unlock that potential.”

Brohi transformed women’s literacy and skills development centers into embroidery centers in every village where women learned to embroider, earn an income and lead within their families. They also learned to assert their rights within Islam, the national religion.

In 2011, there were Sughar centers in about 20 villages in Sindh and Balochistan provinces.

Since then, Brohi said there were villages where 30% of girls returned to school after starting their period, another rarity. A recent study by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that there were 460 honor killings in 2017, Barron said.

“They were blown away,” Brohi said. “A woman who would initially say, ‘oh my husband is beating me.’ Now they say, ‘He can never do this to me now.’

“That’s what we were supposed to do”

Brohi and Barron hope to open a Chai Spot in every state so they can continue to support and provide opportunities for women and children in Pakistan.

The moment they opened their first school reaffirmed that, Brohi said with tears in his eyes.

“I looked at my cousin and we nodded,” Brohi said. “That’s what we were supposed to do.”

Details: The Chai Spot, Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village, 36 AZ-179 Suite B201, Sedona. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. 928-862-4300, thechaispot.com. On Instagram @thechaispot.

Contact the reporter at [email protected] Follow her on Instagram @sofia.krusmark