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Student on a mission to educate, empower women in Pakistan

October 21, 2019

KOKOMO, Ind. — If not us, who? If not today, then when?

Her mother’s words motivate Mehreen Tahir in her mission — to empower women in her home country of Pakistan through education. As she earns her degree in chemistry from Indiana University Kokomo, she’s monitoring the progress of the schools she’s founded in Pakistan to teach girls and women basic skills that will give them a chance at independence.

Her family continues her work while she is in the United States, but she returns each summer to open new schools and recruit new students. So far, she’s started educational programs in five cities, each one serving 100 to 200 women and children, ranging in age from 5 to 65.  She receives funding from the US State Department and from private donors.

Her schools welcome students of all ages, but Tahir especially wants to reach women of childbearing age, seeing them as the chance to change the country’s mindset.

Many of the students are married and became mothers very young, and bring their children to the school — one 13-year-old who attends has three children. In addition to learning to read and write, students and their children receive meals, counseling services, and other assistance as needed. 

“A child’s first learning starts in her mother’s lap,” she said. “If a mother is not educated, how can she understand the importance of education? 

Her dream is that educated mothers will send their daughters to read, and will raise their sons to treat women with respect.

Tahir has faced unimaginable hardship to get to where she is today.

At 13, she came to the United States alone, as part of the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program, funded by the U.S. Department of State to bring students with significant Muslim population to spend one academic year in the United States. After a year with a family in Shelby County, Indiana, she returned home, ready to open a school.

Her actions drew the attention of area tribal leaders, because it conflicted with their beliefs that women have limited rights and should be at home raising children. She received verbal warnings that she or her family would be killed if she didn’t stop, but she didn’t back down.

Then, one terrible day, Tahir found her mother near death, having been shot in the head – and people in her community let her know it was her fault, for acting outside societal norms.

“I had two options at that point,” Tahir continued. “I could step down and stop my program, or I could leave the country and come back later to do something bigger.”

The shooting was meant to stop her — instead, it made her mission more urgent.

“My greatest fear was that I would be killed, or someone in my family would be hurt or killed,” she said. “When they shot her, they took that fear out of me, and made me more determined.”

A little over a month after her mother’s shooting, Tahir returned to Indiana, with dreams of earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry. At IU Kokomo, she found a friendly community that embraced her.

She knows not every girl in Pakistan can earn a degree from an American university, and she wants her education to benefit as many people as possible.

“When you receive a scholarship, the people who gave it expect you to do something for other people,” she said. “It’s not possible for one donor to support 5,000 girls in Pakistan. But if I am getting educated with their support, and I can use that education to help others, that gift expands to 50, 100, hundreds of people, depending on your effort.”

Indiana University Kokomo celebrates 75 years as north central Indiana’s choice for higher education.

Last updated: 10/21/2019