Shaira and Gumera were born and live in Chitral, a remote district on Pakistan's northern border with Afghanistan, renowned for its beautiful valleys and snow-covered mountains.
The two young women are both members of the Kalash community, an indigenous group of just over 4,000 people whose culture and language are completely different from surrounding ethnic groups. The Kalash are best known for the exquisitely embroidered, brightly-colored textiles worn by its women. While about half of Kalash people have become Muslim, an equal number remain with their original pre-Islamic polytheistic religion, in which nature plays an important spiritual role.
Shaira and Gumera are also in the vanguard of a new effort to bring access to the protections of Pakistan’s legal system to one of the most remote areas of the country—they are in training to become community-based paralegals.
They work for a program run by the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, a development agency established in the region in 1989. For many years SRSP has been working with local community members on a range of development efforts, from erecting hydroelectric dams to establishing opportunities for local enterprise, always working through people in the community. It added the legal empowerment project that Shaira and Gumera work for in 2012.
Shaira, one in a family of seven children from the village of Broon, runs a small handicraft center. Each morning she teaches other girls how to make the traditional Kalash dresses, just as her own mother taught her. She also sells locally-made handicrafts to customers in cities across the country; one day she hopes she can turn this into a nationwide business. Shaira used to do domestic work in her spare time, but now she plans to spend it doing paralegal work.
Shaira says she wants to become a paralegal because she has seen the impact of extreme poverty in her own community, and wants to help people help themselves—she’s particularly concerned about the marital issues facing women in the non-Kalash Muslim majority living in her community.
The Kalash, she says, have very different marital relations from the majority Muslim population: “In the Kalash community we can go and choose to live with anyone," she says, "We are never forced.”
Unlike most Muslim Pakistani girls in Chitral, Kalash women choose their own husbands, and they move in with them without a ceremony, dowry or other binding obligations, and multiple wives are not allowed. If they choose to leave the relationship, they are free to do so. Shaira notes that, unlike in the majority population, Kalash women aren’t stuck in unhappy marriages, because they are always free to leave. However, they have one big problem that Muslim women do not face: under traditional law, they are not entitled to any inheritance.
Gumera, from the village of Pehlawandeh, works as a supervisor of a local savings and interest group. In her spare time she enjoys playing women’s cricket, and she wants to become a lawyer one day. She has become a paralegal because, living in a very poor village, she has a strong commitment to helping those in need, and she wants to give her community more of a voice in its own future. In the savings scheme she runs, local women save money for themselves but also pool funds for charitable purposes. Recently they were able to use these funds to help a fellow community member with urgent medical expenses. While Gumera is aware of the particular problems facing women in her community, she’s keen to help both men and women with their legal issues.
Since starting their training as paralegals in March 2014, both Gumera and Shaira have both begun leading legal awareness sessions in their own and neighboring communities, mostly among women; Gumera used the opportunity of a cricket match to hold one for men too. Already people are referring cases on forced marriage and child maintenance. “I feel I still need to build up people’s trust,” says Shaira, looking concerned. “I have a sense there are many other problems which people are not coming forward with yet.”