Tales of Ismaili Women of Shimshal: Hussn Bibi and Her Journey to New Zealand to Study English

Editor’s note: This is the last in Simerg’s 3-part series on Ismaili women in a remote village in Pakistan, adapted from Pam Henson’s recent publication Women of Shimshal.  Readers who are joining the series for the first time are invited to read the preceding parts by clicking:

The story, below, of Hussn Bibi is remarkable for it provides Bibi’s life experiences of her early childhood,  marriage and career, followed by her departure and stay in New Zealand to study English, and finally her commitment to helping her community upon her return from New Zealand. Pam Henson’s own interest in Hussn Bibi and her passion and effort, both means and time, for securing Bibi a place to study English at the Campbell Institute in Auckland  is truly inspiring.

By Pam Henson

The Cover page of “Women of Shimshal” by Pam Henson. Copyright.

Hussn Bibi was a teacher of Social Studies at the Diamond Jubilee School for girls in Shimshal, when Lynette Willoughby and I first went there as volunteer teachers. Her particular interest was in early childhood education.

Hussn’s Early Life in Shimshal

I was born in Shimshal in about 1970. My mother, Guljon, is from Hussaini on the Karakoram Highway and my father from Shimshal. I have two brothers, one older and one younger than me. My older brother is a school teacher and I am too. He teaches in the government school, and I teach in the Aga Khan School. My younger brother works in Karachi. I’m going to tell you about my early life.

When I was maybe four years old, a girls’ school was established here for the first time. And I was one of the lucky girls to go to school. There were about 80 students. Most of them were 12 to 15 years old. I was the youngest one. There was no proper school building in the village, so we used to study in the Jamat Khana, which is our religious centre. We hadn’t a proper teacher but Ghulam Rasool who had passed primary education taught us for a while. We hadn’t notebooks, pencils or even books, so we used wooden slates, wooden pens and clay ink. These were our school materials. We went to school for two years, then the school stopped because the teacher gave up teaching, frustrated at the lack of a system. Then the Aga Khan Education Service appointed a teacher called Aman Ullah. He was the first teacher’s nephew. After that, the school ran properly. It was systematic from then on with exams and so on.

Hussn Bibi of Shimshal. Photo: Pam Hneson. Copyright.

Our parents were subsistence farmers and couldn’t buy materials for us. If parents had a chicken, we would take an egg to the shopkeeper and he would give us a book. That was the system. When I was nine years old and in class two, I got married because my parents thought I was old enough and they wanted me to live in a family that was better off. My father-in-law had one son and he wanted him to be married. It was the tradition.

At nine, I was involved in a number of programmes in the village. My father-in-law noticed me and he chose me because he thought I was clever. It was an arranged marriage. At my in-laws’ I faced many problems. They didn’t replace my parents’ love and attention. I missed my parents and my home. I knew nothing about my in-laws before the wedding, and when I moved into their house they were complete strangers. They tried to care for me, especially my father-in-law who loved me very much, but my mother-in-law was a bit different. My husband was thirteen years old and was not interested in me at all. He was not mature. The family were farmers and I had to help with animal work, field work and housework and at the same time keep up with my study. I went to pamir for five years running in the summer and in winter I used to help with farm work – collecting firewood, spinning wool and looking after the animals. My in-laws considered school a big relaxation for me and when I got home they would give me more and more work to do, especially my mother-in-law. I used to run home quite a lot, but the in-laws tried to keep me at their house.

I went to Gujerab pamir with my mother-in-law and one of my sisters-in-law. I found the life there very difficult. It’s a hierarchical system, and I had to do what I was told. I used to cry a lot at first. I was looking after some goats when a snow leopard killed six or seven of them. The clouds were low, it was raining all day, I was hungry and cold, afraid of the snow leopard and afraid of my mother-in-law, that she would be angry with me.

We didn’t see the snow leopard. We were standing around the corral entrance at milking time counting the goats. We noticed that several goats were missing. A colleague went to look for them and found them dead, obviously the victims of a snow leopard. I was twelve or thirteen then.

After that they decided to keep the male goats separately in a pasture about ten hours’ walk from our base. It was at Deedist. Only two women went out with the male goats for ten days. But after ten days our relief team hadn’t come. We had almost no food, but the woman with me was my relative and she took good care of me. I could see five or six men far below, cutting a patch of barley. I was singing and crying, high up on the mountain, and thinking of my mother. My relative climbed up to me and gave me the last chapatti and piece of cheese. She ate nothing all day. Then a yak and three people were visible on the track in the distance – the relief shepherds had finally arrived. I stopped crying and danced. We went down to the barley field and had tea and food with the men. After that I felt better. I had to look after the male goats in that remote pasture several times, but it was never that bad again.

When I was 15 there were 21 people living in the house and my friend Hasiet and I had to do all the weekly washing for the whole family, even in winter. It took all day and I got frost bite in my feet several times. My toes would turn black. We’d go down to the river and make a fire to heat the water. We used to burn our socks, trying to warm our toes by the fire. It was hard to find enough money to buy new socks with all those people in the house.

Five years after my marriage my husband went to Karachi to study. He stayed there five years, trying to pass his school exams, but he didn’t manage to do that. When he came back, I was 19 and we became properly married. We had a room to ourselves, but we didn’t like each other very much, and it was difficult.

Meantime, I continued my education, which was also very difficult. Finally, in class eight, my in-laws bought me my first writing book and text book. It was a gift from God for me. I was a clever student, getting good marks despite my summers in the pamir and my farm work in winter. I used to come first in my class.

I had to go to Hunza to take my Matriculation, and had no clothes to wear. I borrowed an outfit from my sister-in-law to take with me and when I washed it I had to stay in bed while it was drying. I failed two Matric papers the first time. Raza, my brother, took me to Hunza and paid for my food. For my resits my brother-in-law took me and bought me one shalwar kameez for 250 rupees.

He said, “I have spent a lot of money on you.”

I thought, “It’s ok.”

I didn’t own a pair of shoes until I was 18. We just borrowed each others’ shoes.

When I passed my Matriculation and got a job as a school teacher at 18, I gave all my salary to my husband’s family for the next eight years. I felt it was my obligation because they gave me time to go to school. At 22, I had a son. Our immediate family moved into a separate house away from the extended family of three uncles, their sons and daughters-in-law. I was trying to get on with my husband, but it was not working out. I decided to build a new house and employed a carpenter. I had my own money and felt I could do that. Nobody minded. My father-in-law got the oldest house, out of all the brothers, so I wanted a new house. I wanted to try something new. I started in 1997 and all the carving was hand-carved with a simple knife. The carpenter used a traditional method. I’m very interested in traditional craft, so I copied an old design I had seen. My husband’s relatives were keen to keep me happy, so they helped me with all my plans. They wanted me to get on with my husband.

The Hard Choices for Hussn Bibi to Study English in New Zealand 

Pam Henson – April 2003. The waiting area at Auckland airport. I’m there with coffee and book, my usual companions these days, waiting for Hussn to arrive from Pakistan via a serpentine route. I can hardly believe she will make it alone, but she has an indomitable spirit. I settle down to wait. I have enrolled Hussn at the Campbell Institute, an English language school in Wellington. Even deciding where to enrol her has presented problems. I had no idea which English course would be most suitable for her. She had sent me her Matric results which were unimpressive, and I began to wonder if she would manage the studying. I had forgotten that she studied at home with a tutor for those exams, and that passing them at all was a minor miracle. I just kept remembering her eyes shining with enthusiasm when I invited her.

The university recommended the Campbell Institute. When I went to see the Campbell directors they were intrigued by the notion of this woman, this mountain farmer from Pakistan, coming to their school which mostly enrolled Korean and Chinese youths. The fees seemed astronomical to me, but my mother’s estate provided collateral, the Campbell Institute awarded a generous scholarship to Hussn, and Lynette, my companion on the first trip to Shimshal, sent one thousand pounds, a goodly chunk of the $16,000 that we needed. When I approached a relative of mine for a contribution she instead rejoined rather acidly that it would be a lot more cost effective for Hussn to study in Pakistan.

I had certainly not thought through my idea of inviting Hussn to New Zealand. What was the purpose of this offer? If it was for her to improve her educational qualifications, she could easily have done that in Pakistan at a fraction of the cost. Justification for our action came retrospectively. Hussn would be the first woman ever to travel abroad from Shimshal. She would have excellent teaching in English language. She would have an experience of another culture. She would return to Shimshal and teach from a depth of experience unparalleled in the village. She would have a year’s holiday with study, which everyone in Shimshal deserves because of the hard life they lead. I could not regret my impulsive decision. I thought my mother would approve of the way I was spending her hard-earned money.

There were other questions asked of us when we talked about our plans. Was it fair and sensible, people asked, to take someone from a poor, developing country, give her a taste of western life with all its riches and advantages and then return her to the difficult life of the village from which she came? I had little difficulty answering this question. I don’t believe we can make such decisions for people. We can offer opportunities but we can’t tell people that they will or will not cope with the chance to travel or to experience a completely different way of life. We can’t decide for other people what they can or cannot manage.

It’s well known that exchange students have a horrible time when they arrive in a new place, missing home and their parents and friends unbearably. And that when they go home, they have another period of time when they miss the new friends and culture they have met just as unbearably. Student exchange organisations such as American Field Service put programmes in place to help the exchange students recognise that their experience is common, that it is temporary and that the excruciating feelings will pass. Our job would be to prepare Hussn for these feelings and help her to mitigate them in whatever way we could think of.

We had by now formed the Shimshal Trust, but the Trust was still in a very woolly state with rather unformed ideas about what it would do. At this stage Hussn was a personal not a Trust project, but it was Trust members — me, Matt, Catharina, and Tama — who organised Hussn’s visit and mostly paid for it, at least at the start of the project.

Mike White had been correct. Once the decision was made, problems resolved themselves without my having to worry too much. When I decided on the Campbell Institute, unexpected help was available. Campbell directors were experienced in negotiating with Immigration New Zealand and what’s more they were prepared to organise Hussn’s visa. They had contacts and could ask what they needed to do for a successful result. We had to fill in a few forms, that was all.

Hussn arranged to have a year’s leave from her job with the Aga Khan Education Service, and sent her son to school in Karachi and to stay with her brother, which had been her plan before she decided to go to New Zealand. Her relationship with her husband had never been great, but she needed his permission to travel and leave the village. It was given.

Karavan Leaders arranged Hussn’s air tickets and gave her money for her travel expenses. One of the company owners took her shopping for jeans and western style clothes. She was passed from helpful male to helpful male as she travelled south to Lahore. Women don’t normally travel unescorted in Pakistan, especially if they want to avoid trouble and unpleasant remarks.

But it remains to be seen whether or not Hussn will successfully make the transition to a modern college, a modern city, a western culture and to living in the Wairarapa from where she will have to catch the train every morning to get to college.

It is now Easter Monday, 2003 and we have arranged everything in the months since October 2002. All it needed was a leap in the dark, a little faith in the universe.

Right on cue, here she is. She looks small in her beige shalwar kameez with her dupata draped over her head, concealing her dark hair a little, but mostly, I imagine, making her feel safe. She sees me waving and a weak grin of relief washes over her brown face. She is exhausted.

Hussn Bibi’s Journey to New Zealand

Pam Henson: Hussn told this story to me, so it is sprinkled with “you,” referring to the writer.

Hussn: I have a unique life in Shimshal. On the one hand I have faced many difficulties, but on the other hand I have been very lucky to be the first woman in Shimshal to travel overseas and to have the chance to study in New Zealand.

When I was teaching, you and Lynette came to work voluntarily in our schools. Before that I was already interested in foreigners and I was fascinated by languages. But I didn’t have basic language education, so I didn’t know how to talk to foreign people. It was my dream to learn more and talk to people. Having you and Lynette here was a great chance to do that.

When you came the second time I was suffering disappointments in my personal life because people were spreading rumours about me. This really upset me. My husband was not highly intelligent and people thought I was ignoring him, and it hurt me. I was doing all the housework, and helping him in field work and farm work of all kinds as well as doing my job. I was not happy at all.

I met Qudrat at that time, and as a joke I said, “Couldn’t you ask Pam to take me to New Zealand?” Then at the dinner party for your group in school, you offered to take me to New Zealand, and I said, “Yes.” Then I thought, maybe my family won’t give me permission to go. Maybe I would get lost on the way, and other such fears. But when a woman asked me, “Aren’t you afraid to go so far from the village?” I said, “No. I’m not afraid at all.” Then I thought, nothing was really settled. But when you asked me for my passport and documents, I began to believe I might really get to New Zealand.

My mum was quite upset, because it was the first time a woman had done anything like that. She was also worried because she thought I might not get enough to eat in New Zealand. When I went to Gilgit, I wasn’t sure if I would cope with the travel or not. I flew Pakistan International Airline from Gilgit to Islamabad. Mujahid came with me to Lahore and there Inayat Ullah Baig helped me a lot. I stayed with his family at Karavan Leaders for four days. They took me to the airport, and waited till I phoned them from the departure lounge.

At the airport, a uniformed man asked, “Can I help you?”

I said, “Yes,” so he carried my case twenty metres to the check-in desk, and asked me for money. I gave him 100 rupees and he asked for more. I said, “Sorry!”

Then the immigration official asked me for 500 rupees, so I gave it to him. In the departure lounge a man sold me a telephone card for 100 rupees. He left me to look for change and didn’t come back. An airport official helped me to get my money from him. When I finally got on the plane, I relaxed a bit.

At Bangkok I was worried about the right procedures to follow. Everyone else was sleeping, but I couldn’t sleep. Fortunately I met a Pakistani family, and they told me what I should do: go to the Transfer Desk, get a boarding pass, and find the Departure Lounge. Then I felt happy that I was in the right place.

At Taipei, my next stop, someone was waiting for me with my name on a card and she showed me what to do. There were no difficulties. I kept changing the time on my watch carefully so that I wouldn’t miss my plane. Then I flew from Taipei to Auckland. At Auckland I was afraid of the dog, because somebody told me that if something was wrong with your luggage the dog would bite you. Even though I tried to have nothing illicit in my bag, I remembered Wahab telling me that a cricketer with smelly shoes was detained by the sniffer dog. But it was OK. I got my luggage, went out, and saw you on the chair with your coffee and your book. I thought, “I made it!” I was so happy to get there.

Hussn Bibi in New Zealand

Hussn in the Mount Bruce area, Wairarapa, New Zealand, 2003. Pam Henson

I found the weather totally different in Auckland. In my village there are mountains and clear sky, or clouds just on the top of the mountain. But in Auckland I was astonished to see the cloud so low, it looked as if it was in the sea. It was raining a lot, and on the way home it rained so much it was like driving in a river.

I had been travelling for 21 hours by then, and I was totally exhausted. So instead of noticing my new surroundings, I was falling asleep in the car. On the way home we visited Nancy at Taupo. It was the first time I’d been in a foreign house. I found it absolutely strange. We walked into the house, and you introduced us, then Nancy was sitting with us and her husband was cooking lunch. And I thought, “Oh! It’s not good. The man is cooking lunch.” I was shocked. In my village the man never cooks at home.

But after I thought: this is equality. This is a balanced life. In Shimshal the man earns money and the woman does domestic work. In New Zealand, both men and women can earn money, so they just compromise, and men do some housework. At first I was shocked, but afterwards I thought it was an equal life.

Nancy offered us bread – also new for me – and some salad. I saw her mixing something with the salad, and I was afraid it might be alcohol, so I didn’t eat the salad.

We stayed at National Park in the motel, and went for a walk there. We emailed Inayat to say that I’d arrived safely. Then we drove the next day to Featherston. The weather amazed me. It was changing all the time, quite unlike the village. I was surprised that you didn’t return the car to a hire company, and I was really surprised to see the wood pile in the car port. I never thought you would have a wood burner, as we do in the village.

So you showed me your house and garden, then you told me to make some tea because you had to chop some wood for the fire. I thought about Shimshal tea. So I boiled the water in the kettle, then I put tea bags and milk in the kettle. You lit the fire and came into the kitchen. I said, “Tea is ready, Pam.” You were looking in the fridge.

I said, “What are you looking for?”

You replied, “Milk.”

I said, “I put it in the kettle.”

You laughed and said, “You did well. But you don’t need to do that here. We’ll put milk in ourselves.” So I learned to make New Zealand tea. I also learned to listen very carefully because you were speaking very fast.

The next day you took me to the Campbell Institute in Wellington. I met Tim, the director, and he suggested I have a one week rest and then come to school. I took one week’s break, sleeping all the time while you were going to work. I slept, ate, and drank tea for a week. It was nice.

I found it was hard to cook in New Zealand because it was so different. You cooked for us for the five months we were in Featherston, and I just ate. I felt a bit uncomfortable because in the village we respect our elders and don’t let them do much work. But I was really uncertain how to go about it. When after five months we moved to Wellington, I used to cook once a week. I learned to use all the electrical gear.

I’m so grateful that you arranged everything for me: what I did at weekends and in the holidays. I got every opportunity because you knew about village life, you understood how different western life is, and so you arranged things for me. Whatever cultural events came up, you’d get tickets for it and we’d go. We went to concerts, Arts Festival events, school concerts and plays with other friends, regular cinema visits and the fireworks displays on the harbour. You organised travel to see other friends.

Although I learned so much, my language courses were the most important experiences for me. At first there were problems. All the students were Japanese, Chinese or South Korean, and I was the oldest one there. At first we didn’t understand each others’ accents, but after a while we could communicate, and they treated me as a friend despite the age difference. They never let me feel discouraged. We had parties together, and they came to our house. I met a lot of different people. Many of your friends invited me to stay. Also friends I had met in Pakistan such as Robyn Jebson (from Queenstown), Cathy Jones (from Nelson), Kim Penny (from Palmerston North), and Pat and Murray Reedy (from Greymouth) invited me to their homes and took me everywhere.

Hussn Bibi (right) and Pat Reedy, South Island, New Zealand, 2003. Photo: Pam Henson

I learned to use the computer in your house and at college. You were always suggesting I spend time on the computer. I had never touched one before, but soon I learned to send emails and write my assignments and use the Internet for research. You taught me how to use the phone, the automatic teller, and the computer, and none of this was a problem for me.

I learned to travel on my own, because mostly we had different holidays. I enjoyed going to the South Island, especially on the ferry. The first time we travelled together, and I thought you would park your car somewhere and leave it, but you drove straight onto the ferry. I was so excited! Oh my goodness! We are going to take the car on the ferry!

I went to the South Island one other time on the ferry, on my own, and once by air. I enjoyed staying with Pat and Murray Reedy because I thought they were a good couple. They know Shimshal, so they showed me everywhere, even though they were busy: Christchurch, the blowholes at Punakaiki, the glass-blowing factory at Hokitika, the greenstone shop, the pottery workshop.

I was never homesick because I was very keen to travel to a foreign country and to learn. I was a bit anxious at first about my ability to adjust. In Shimshal I had trouble making decisions. But in New Zealand I gained enough confidence to realise that I could make decisions and that I had the right to make decisions. I missed my mum at times and especially my son, Amin. We were very close. He used to sleep with me at night, and was never far away from me in the daytime. You remember I was upset about not being able to pay my brother some support for Amin, but you told me the amount was not great. So I saved some from my allowance and you gave some too, and we sent the money.

Then on Amin’s birthday, I was worried that no one would celebrate with him. I was crying and you and Liz asked me what was wrong. So we bought a cake, I made curry and chapatti, and we all dressed up in shalwar kameez. We phoned him and sang Happy Birthday to him as we cut the cake. It was nice.

You were concerned about my return to the village. I was happy about seeing my family again, but anxious about my personal life. I did not want to return to my husband.

Hussn Bibi’s Return to Pakistan

Pam Henson: People often ask me how Hussn fared when she went back to Pakistan. She went first to Karachi to see her son and while there she made an appointment to see a psychologist. I had told Hussn that her husband was her problem, and that she would find a way to use her own culture to sort out her relationship with him because she was a strong and intelligent woman.

Hussn: When individuals go abroad, the villagers expect that on their return they will have a negative effect on village life and culture. I tried to make sure that expectation was not realised. It was my misfortune that I did not get on with my husband. That gave a bad impression. But I was having trouble in my marriage before I went away, and I didn’t get any support.

Hussn Bibi in Shimshal, 2006. Photo: Pam Henson. Copyright.

If an educated woman asks for a divorce, it’s considered an insult to the man. But I was determined, and it’s not illegal, even in Islam. I was very apprehensive about returning but my brothers promised to help me because they were afraid I might stay in New Zealand. I was still upset when I arrived back in Pakistan. But in Karachi, when I was visiting my son, I consulted a psychologist. She advised me to leave the village, because a divorce might give people a poor attitude towards me and it would be hard to cope. But I couldn’t see how I could get a job anywhere else, and I needed my job to help me pay for my son in Karachi. My brothers tried to persuade me to stay with my husband, but it was unacceptable. I asked my husband’s family to give Amin some property, and I would live with him but they wouldn’t agree. A woman has no property rights in our culture. I had spent all my salary since 1988 on the new house, food and tractor hire when we needed it, but I was entitled to nothing. So I went to arbitration. The court ruled that the house belonged to my son, and that my husband was unable to pay me any money, since he had no earnings. He had not paid towards his son’s upkeep because of lack of funds. The in-laws agreed that if my ex-husband remarried, they would divide the property and give half to Amin, my son. I had decided not to remarry, to give my attention to my son, and to support him in his education.

My time in New Zealand has been beneficial despite the divorce. For the recent visit of Prince Charles and his wife to Karimabad, I was asked to speak to Camilla along with women with much higher qualifications because of my experience in New Zealand.

At the moment I’m a manager in the women’s committee; I’m the honorary secretary of the Religious Education Board; at school I help the principal with administration. Last year I was offered a principalship in Shimshal but I turned it down because I want to get my degree first. I was also offered a government job, but I turned that down too. I want to work in the Aga Khan school because of my religious faith. Now I feel hopeful about the future. I don’t think I will marry again, though I have had some offers. I would really like to live on my own and be independent. But I’m most concerned about my son. I’m not very interested in marriage.

Date posted: Sunday, November 18, 2012.

Copyright: Pam Henson and the Shimshal Trust (www.shimshaltrust.org.nz)

Previous parts:

Remarkable Tales of Ismaili Women from Shimshal, a Remote Village in the Karakoram (I)
Eid Festivities, Celebrations after a Dangerous Trip, and Stories of a Health Worker and a Wood-Cutter (II)



Dupata – Long head scarf worn by the women

Ismaili – Second largest branch of Shia Muslims. His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan is their current spiritual leader

Matric – Matriculation exam taken at the end of year 10 and if passed gains the Secondary School Certificate.

pamir – the pamir are the high mountain pastures around Shimshal

shalwar kameez – Baggy trousers and shirt worn by men and women in Asian Muslim communities

We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters. Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New.

7 thoughts on “Tales of Ismaili Women of Shimshal: Hussn Bibi and Her Journey to New Zealand to Study English

  1. Indeed, Hussn Bibi has an inspirational personality with humble nature as I am from the same valley and personally know her very well. You rock Hussn.

  2. Have just discovered Pam’s stories. I had spent 2 years on a bicycle on my own goung through the mountains of Pakistan, and taken a few days of rest in Simshal. Remember it well. Spent many reverse summers tramping in New Zealand.

    Looking forward to reading the book; beautifully documented. Well done!

  3. Many thanks to Pam and Malik for this great and heart touching life experiences of life in the remote mountains of Pamir range. It was heart warming to see how Pat and her friends transformed Hussn Bibi’s life and help Amin. Pam, you have done an admirable humanitarian work and God will reward you with inner peace.

  4. Hussn Bibi’s hard work and faith are inspirational and I think she is a role model for others everywhere, both East and West. May all her and wishes come true, and her love bless Amin in this life and the next. Thank you

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s