Written by: Lena Shareef

We had a few more questions left in the interview. My friend, Olivia, and I were sitting on the floor of a three-room house in At-Bashy village, which is in the middle of Naryn, a rural province of Kyrgyzstan. I zoomed the camera lens in slightly on Vineira, a young Kyrgyz woman we met through our translator, while Olivia sat to my left conducting the interview. This was our second time visiting Kyrgyzstan and our second time interviewing Vineira at her home.

In addition to telling stories of change at Fenton, I run a non-profit media organization called GIRLWITHABOOK Movement, which advocates for girls’ education and gender equality. My team and I are working on producing a documentary series about what it means to be a girl in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. In October 2015, we embarked on a four-month trip, a month in each country, to identify and interview girls and women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds about what being a girl personally means to them.

Because the average person doesn’t know about Central Asia due to lack of media representation or even mentions of the region in history classes, Kyrgyzstan was our first stop. Even now, when I mention it to others, I can tell from the puzzled look on their faces that they think I’m just mispronouncing the name of another country. Very few people realize that Kyrgyzstan is a post-Soviet country with a 99.5% literacy rate, an incredibly high rate compared to the other countries we visited. Even fewer people know that as part of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan did pretty well in terms of equally educating boys and girls. In general, people don’t know what to expect when they think of Kyrgyzstan, and before we got there, neither did we.

Having seen the country, I’m convinced that Kyrgyzstan is sold short in all the travel guides you can find. Its people and history are as complex and interesting as any other, and I find it to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Vineira’s small farm is surrounded by mountains with a creek flowing down the hill just behind the house. It’s October 2016, the air is crisp and I remember gazing at the mountains thinking, “I can’t believe we’re back exactly a year later.”

Vineira was most definitely thinking the same thing. When we saw her last, it was on the first anniversary of her husband’s death. He passed away two years ago unexpectedly and now, with the help of her father-in-law, she cares for her four young daughters, all under the age of ten. She is in her early thirties. In Kyrgyz culture, when there is a death in your family, you are expected to host the rest of the members of your extended family for two to three days and prepare food while everyone gathers to remember and honor the person they’ve lost. Our arrival was horrible timing, to say the least, and we certainly didn’t plan for that to happen, but unfortunately, it was the only time we could fit the interviews with her and her family into our schedule.

I remember feeling so awkward around Vineira then. There we were, with our cameras and backpacks, trying not to get in anyone’s way as we interviewed her daughters, asking them what they want to be when they grow up and their favorite subjects at school. The entire time, Vineira was focused on being a gracious host to all her guests, cooking food, making sure the tea pot was never empty, and scooping out food onto other people’s plates. She had a very controlled, neutral expression on her face throughout those few days, never showing what she was really feeling. I was convinced she didn’t like us very much. After all, we were just some random American girls getting in her way.

But our second interview with Vineira felt different. Even as we spoke to her through our translator and guide, she looked more relaxed as we asked her about her family and education. We asked her to describe her daughters and what she hopes for them. She told us what personality traits make each of them different and how they stand out from each other. She talked about wanting them to pursue higher education and attend college. She wants them to travel and see the world, “like you,” she said, gesturing towards us.

The best part of the interview happened toward the end when we thanked Vineira for her time. As a courtesy, we asked if she had any questions for us. Usually our interviewees would smile shyly and say no. My hand was hovering over the record button of the camera, getting ready to turn it off when suddenly she threw our questions right back at us. “What do you value in your education?” “What do you think is the hardest part about being a girl?” Olivia and I glanced at each other, taken aback that she was curious about us and what we thought. We smiled back at her. We had an in-depth conversation where we each shared the various pressures we feel from society. As a mother and a widow, she has enormous expectations she deals with on a daily basis. But she was equally curious about our lives. “How did our parents react when we told them about our travels?” “What pressures do we face? What did we think of Kyrgyzstan?”

I was amazed at how much she opened up to us. With the help of our translator, we were all joking, laughing, and sharing stories about discriminatory comments we’ve faced from family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers. We talked about times when we have all felt limited. Kyrgyzstan may not have any issues with providing education for women and girls or making sure that they have access to basic health care needs, but they feel restricted in other ways. Ways that I think every woman can relate to, whether it’s about sexual harassment they have experienced on their walks home or the pressure to get married by the age of 24. By taking the time to sit down with Vineira and actually listen to what she has to say, I realized that this is worth it. Over an hour later, we hear one of her daughters yell out for her mom, and Vineira quietly says to us as she’s standing up, “I wish I could speak to you more, but I have to go.”

These conversations motivate me to do what I do because there is value in telling stories. Through our work with GIRLWITHABOOK, we may not be funding scholarships or building schools, but I believe there is value in giving a platform for women and girls to speak up and say what’s on their mind.

Illustration: Elina Tuomi.

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