Riffat Arif, commonly known as Sister Zeph, is an educationist, climate and women’s rights activist, philanthropist, published writer, motivational speaker and community figure. She is also the founder of the Zephaniah Women’s Education and Empowerment Foundation (ZWEE). For her efforts in promoting literacy, she has received several international awards, the latest being the $1 million Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, 2023. She was selected from over 7,000 nominations from 130 countries.
As a 13-year-old girl from Gujranwala, Riffat Arif’s dreams of becoming a lawyer when she grew up came to an abrupt pause when she decided to drop out of school in 1997 because of the harsh treatment she received from one of her teachers. Riffat decided never to go to school again but did not quit studying. She continued her studies independently at home, her dreams taking on a new shape. She utilized that untoward incident with her teacher as a catalyst for personal growth and to drive her passion for reform in the education field.
After withdrawing from school, Riffat started teaching girls in her village – but with respect, love, and care “I volunteered to have girls over – I started making home visits in my village. I made pamphlets to distribute among people. I told everyone that it will be free education. I walked even further, and went to tell people about my school in the nearby villages to convince them to send their girls. I told them that I would teach them English for free. I started visiting people with my mother on every Sunday. I decided that I would never use a stick in my school, and that I would make education interesting for the children,”she says.
Riffat describes herself as a dreamer who wanted to fly high and explore everything that was different. She worked eight-hour days to fund her school, taught students for another four hours, and then stayed up at night teaching herself. Twenty-seven years later, the school, now housed in a brand-new building, provides free education for more than 200 underprivileged children. Many of her students from humble backgrounds have gone to work for her education and empowerment foundation, while others have gone on to very successful professional careers.
Sister Zeph is fueled by an unwavering determination, which compels her to tirelessly advocate for women’s rights in every way she can. Her organization, ZWEE aims to enhance the position of women via education and empowerment. She runs self-defense classes for girls, having herself been attacked and threatened. She also provides financial assistance to families choosing between educating their children and paying their bills. She runs a vocational centre that has helped more than 6,000 women gain skills in ICT, textiles, and the English language.
With the Global Teacher Prize funds, Sister Zeph plans to build a school on 10 acres where children from the poorest families in the country can be educated without discrimination. She would also like to create a shelter for orphans, where food would be grown on the property, and teachers from all parts of the world would be invited to instruct them in a range of subjects.
Below are excerpts from her conversation with Hilal for Her, in which she shares her journey, achievements and aspirations.
How did your journey begin?
This experience shattered me, and instead of returning, I decided to establish my own school in the confines of my home’s courtyard.
Initially considered a mere child’s play by my family and those around me, with time, they began to witness my innate calling as a teacher. My ‘game’ became a reality within a few months, attracting twenty students. Recognizing the need for financial support to sustain the free school, I took up work as a child laborer, dedicating 8 hours a day for the next 17 years to fund my educational initiative. Teaching subjects ranging from science, arts, and languages to broader topics like general knowledge, IT, environmental studies, and interfaith harmony, my commitment to disseminating education remained unwavering.
You decided at a very young age that you were going to work for the betterment of girls and women on a wider scale, and you chose the field of education (and that too for free). Why education and not business or something else?
The essence of leadership and teaching is innate; it can be nurtured and refined but never created from scratch. I have always felt destined to be a teacher. I had an inherent desire to ensure that no child felt unprotected within the school environment. My goal was to instill in them the value of their voices, encourage curiosity, support their quest for answers to even the most unconventional questions, and, above all, offer them respect while guiding their exploration of the world around them. I firmly believe that punishing a child for mistakes in the learning process is always counterproductive.
My journey to education advocacy started early in life. When my father was seriously injured in an accident and couldn’t work, our family faced significant hardships. Witnessing this, I became acutely aware of the critical need for free education to ensure that learning never stops, providing hope to children in difficult circumstances. Moreover, I strongly felt the urgency to empower women through education and skills. This motivated me to establish a vocational centre where over 6000 women have received free training over the past 15 years.
Please talk in detail about your educational philosophy.
In my experience, educational systems tend to be lacking in nurturing leadership and innovative qualities among students. It is a concerning reality that we are still conditioning students to conform instead of fostering independent thinking.
Every child comes to school to learn, which inherently grants them the right to ask questions. It is the responsibility of educators to not only clarify doubts but also to impart knowledge about the world while fostering a secure and supportive learning environment. Teachers are responsible for guiding students to explore their life’s purpose and play their role in the progression of society.
We are at a pivotal moment where we must cultivate an environment that empowers students to compete globally. Confidence-building and access to quality education should no longer be seen as privileges but as fundamental rights accessible to every child, free from barriers, societal taboos, and class distinctions.
Why is women empowerment an important objective for you?
At the tender age of two-and-a-half, I survived an attempt on my life by my uncle, who hurled me from a rooftop when my younger sister was born, considering me an extra burden on our family. Today, nearly 35 years later, that same uncle wishes for a daughter like me because I have proven not to be a burden but an asset.
I witnessed my mother endure countless challenges when my father faced a debilitating accident. Poverty, hunger, and financial obligations — these are challenges that transcend gender barriers. Every individual, regardless of gender, deserves the tools to confront life’s adversities, and this can only be achieved through education and financial empowerment for all.
Why do you focus on information technology (IT) and digital literacy as tools for women's empowerment?
The world is swiftly evolving into a global community. Projections suggest that by 2050, more than 70% of jobs will be intertwined with IT. This inevitable progress is evident in the growing integration of AI in various aspects of our lives. In response, it is crucial not only to discuss these transformative changes but also to take proactive steps. Staying ahead of the curve is imperative for ensuring a dignified existence within our nation and on our planet. Undoubtedly, digital literacy stands as a cornerstone in this endeavor. Also, the beauty of IT lies in its universal accessibility — it transcends boundaries and provides an equal platform for anyone worldwide to reach their aspirations.
You also offer vocational training and skill development to help women become financially independent. Please share the details.
After completing my Bachelor’s in Arts in 2005, I secured a job with a significant salary of 10,000 rupees. With this income, I hired a teacher for 3,000 rupees per month to teach stitching to young village women, offering the classes for free. These sessions took place in my home’s courtyard during the mornings, as I would return from my full-time job to teach at my courtyard school in the evening. After a few years, I rented a small building where I employed another teacher for a beauty parlor. In 2014, I received the Lynn Syms Prize and used the funds to purchase the same building. I reconstructed it into a two-story structure, setting up my office on the ground floor and establishing a vocational centre on the first floor. Since then, women have received free training in various disciplines such as art, self-defense, hairdressing, makeup, IT, English language, small business management, career counseling, fashion design, and stitching.
My students have evolved into diverse professionals, including small business owners, school teachers, fashion designers, tailors, beauticians, university students, and more. While I provide a decade of free education, it doesn’t conclude there. Upon matriculation, I equip them with skills to generate income. This financial independence allows them to fund their higher education at colleges or universities without burdening their families, enabling them to pursue their dreams autonomously.
Tell us about your work as a climate activist.
Staying informed about current affairs has been a personal habit of mine. Around 12 years ago, I initiated teaching my students about water safety and climate change. I undertook training and extensively read on the subject. Recently, I established a YouTube channel dedicated to educating the public about climate change and its adverse effects. Furthermore, I was honored to deliver a keynote speech at the Rewired Summit in Dubai in December 2023, emphasizing the critical role of education in combating climate change.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
As a single, rural woman, and an activist, my life has been a testament to overcoming multifaceted challenges. From a young age, I resolved to revolutionize the education system, eradicating discrimination and ensuring every child’s right to education. I started working as a child to break financial barriers for my cause. Choosing a life of singleness was a conscious decision, enabling me to dedicate every moment to my cause. Despite these challenges, I quietly persist in my work.
Between 1997 and 2013, I encountered a lack of support, yet I remained steadfast in my mission. In 2011, my work and its impact gained international recognition when the international media, particularly through social media channels, became aware of my efforts. Since then, things have looked up. I have received financial support from international organizations that helped my team and I get our school building and equipment, etc. Additionally, in recognition of my contributions, Governor Punjab, Mr Baligh ur Rehman, honored me with the Minority Women’s Leadership Award. This award was organized by the Life for Guardian Foundation (LGF) and the Pakistan Partnership Initiative – non-profit entities that commenced funding for my mission in 2021.
What steps should be taken at the policymaking level to ensure that work like yours can get more support at home?
As a Global Teachers Prize winner from Pakistan, advocating for education and its practitioners is crucial. To garner more support for initiatives for women's education, I believe some essential steps are to prioritize education in national budgets, ensuring adequate funding for teacher training, infrastructure development, and access to quality resources, policies that recognize and celebrate the contributions of teachers, providing incentives, awards, and support programs to encourage excellence and retention within the teaching profession, policies promoting continuous professional development for educators, fostering innovation, and equipping teachers with evolving teaching methodologies and technological skills. Moreover, there should be a push for policies ensuring equal access to education for all, irrespective of socio-economic background, by addressing disparities in resources, infrastructure, and educational opportunities. There needs to be advocacy for robust support systems for educators, including mental health services, mentorship programs, and avenues for career progression, thereby enhancing teacher wellbeing and job satisfaction. There should also be encouragement of policies facilitating partnerships between educational institutions, government bodies, NGOs, and the private sector to pool resources, expertise, and initiatives for comprehensive educational reforms. Lastly, there should be an emphasis on the importance of evidence-based policymaking by promoting research in education and utilizing data to inform decisions, ensuring that policies are effective and sustainable.
By engaging policymakers in these areas, we can create an enabling environment that values education, supports educators, and ultimately fosters a brighter future for our nation through the empowerment of our students.
What are your plans for the future?
I am passionate about creating a model school that embodies my educational philosophy, focusing on providing a comprehensive learning experience for underprivileged children nationwide. This school will emphasize a well-rounded education, encompassing subjects like history, math, science, IT, AI, agriculture, art, environmental studies, and global cultures. I aim to prepare students to excel in any corner of the world, equipping them with skills that will enable them to navigate future challenges successfully.
The Varkey Foundation has graciously promised to provide financial support for this initiative. To turn this vision into reality, I am seeking the Government of Pakistan’s assistance in allocating ten acres of land or a suitable unused building. This space will be transformed into a hub where underprivileged children can live, learn, and prosper, all while preparing to contribute positively to our nation’s progress and prosperity.
Ultimately, my goal is to educate and empower the next generation in a manner that brings pride to our nation. By offering a holistic educational environment emphasizing character-building and practical skills, I aim to nurture future leaders who will contribute significantly to our society’s advancement.
What message would you like to give the girls and women who want to follow in your footsteps?
Begin your journey with big dreams, embracing the idea that sometimes you may start alone. As you persist in your efforts, like-minded individuals will naturally gravitate toward your vision, gradually forming your team. Together, your collective impact will grow exponentially. However, remember that consistent hard work and unwavering resilience guide the path toward success.
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