Helping Other Women Overcome Barriers
By Susan Frith


It must have been a bad translation that Safia Rizvi WG’03 came across, as a girl growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, but the book has stuck in her mind all these years later.
“It somehow translated to say that in Paris, the streets are made of glass,” Rizvi recalls, amusement flickering over her dark eyes.
“I imagined the shiny glass city streets, and the cars are rolling along on the glass. So I told my siblings I was going to go to Paris one day.” They laughed at her travel fantasy. “From that moment onwards, my siblings had a teasing name for me: Queen of Paris.”
For Rizvi, raised in a patriarchal Muslim household, a much smaller perimeter had been drawn: She would come home from school and cook dinner. She would let her parents and her two brothers make decisions on her behalf. And she would marry someone her family picked out. End of story. Well, not exactly.
The energetic woman who’s telling this story now over baba ghanoush at the Metropolitan Bakery near Penn’s campus is a Philadelphia resident, a scientist, and a single parent who was named 2001 Working Mother of the Year by Working Mother magazine. She also is founder of Empowerment through Learning Information Technology (eLIT), a non-profit that teaches computer skills to socially and economically disadvantaged women and children. Since eLIT’s creation five years ago (www.elitonline.org), a thousand students have passed through its centers in West Philadelphia, India, and Pakistan.
In addition to improving women’s prospects, Rizvi hopes the eLIT model can be expanded to counter the forces that feed terrorism. “No one is safe until everyone is safe,” she says. “I think we can use communications technology to bring peoples of different cultures, nationalities, and religions closer and really create harmony and understanding.”
With her long dark hair pulled off her heart-shaped face, her ready laugh, and her often self-effacing manner, the adult Rizvi doesn’t fit the standard image of a rebel, and she certainly didn’t see herself that way growing up.
It was a source of family pride that Rizvi, one of five girls, was such a good student. (“Math and science came so naturally,” she says.) But that wasn’t enough to elevate her to the first-class status enjoyed by her brothers. “I never questioned that social order,” she says. “That was just the way things were.”
She majored in chemistry at the University of Karachi, ranking number two in her statewide graduating class. When she went to collect her diploma, one of her professors told her that an American professor was there, interviewing students for scholarships to American graduate schools. “I said, ‘There is no way on earth my parents are going to let me go abroad to study alone.’” He begged her to sit for an interview anyway, wanting to impress the professor with the university’s top students.
Afterward Rizvi quietly filled out some applications and mailed them. “I didn’t know what would happen. I had never lived outside my home. At that point I don’t think I had ever slept in a room by myself.” When she started to receive offers, including one from the University of Oklahoma, her family’s first reaction was stunned silence. Then came anger, particularly from her brothers, who didn’t think it was right for a single woman to live away from home.
“My family decided I would go study only if I were married, because then I’m no longer my family’s responsibility as a single unwed woman and it would then be my husband’s decision to let me study or not.”
Two weeks after Rizvi started classes, she got married—over the telephone. A few hundred guests attended her wedding back home. “They had a fancy wedding dinner, the whole nine yards,” she reports with a wry smile. “Just no bride.” Once Rizvi’s new husband joined her in Oklahoma, her fantasies of what marriage would be like quickly faded. “But I am grateful because something wonderful and beautiful came out of that marriage—my daughter.”
After the birth of Maham, who is now 15, Rizvi began to change. “I started to become anchored and more of a woman rather than a scared girl who was just good at school.” Her growing independence didn’t square with her husband’s views on how she should act and she didn’t want her own daughter to grow up with the restrictions she had known.
The couple separated, and eventually divorced. “I felt that if I worked hard, I can get my PhD and provide my daughter a safe, happy, and nurturing home,” she says. Her decision to raise Maham on her own was “unthinkable for my upbringing, [but] I knew no matter how hard I worked that I could not make my marriage work in a way that was respectable to me.” Her family didn’t understand. “My father told me, ‘If you’re not married to this man, my son-in-law, you’re not my daughter.’”
As painful and scary as it was to be cut off from most of her family, Rizvi managed to cultivate her own “amazing support system” in Oklahoma. Her friends were graduate students and post-docs from Ghana, China, Sri Lanka, and Uganda. They were the parents of a law-school friend. A diverse extended family, who gathered with her on holidays, and who babysat while she worked late in the lab.
“My daughter grew up totally color blind,” Rizvi says. “A black woman with curly hair was Auntie Gertrude and a white Southern Baptist couple were Grandma and Grandpa.” The experience “opened my eyes, and I cannot ignore the fact that at the base of everything is human relation, devoid of other superficial strings.”
Though Rizvi didn’t lack for friendship, sleep was scarce. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked that hard in my life,” she recalls. She would work all day while Maham was in daycare, bring her home, put her to bed, and leave for the lab—often until 1 or 2 a.m. Rizvi sometimes traded cooking for babysitting with friends. Other times, she says, “I would carry Maham with her bedding and she would sleep in the lab while I worked on experiments.”
A post-doc brought Rizvi to Penn’s School of Medicine in 1995. She has stayed in Philadelphia since then, working for GlaxoSmithKline—first as a cancer researcher working on human genome data, and now, with the help of a Wharton MBA, as manager of the company’s achievement and corporate excellence group.
One day she happened to attend a talk in New York by Asma Jahangir, a Pakistani women’s rights activist. “She was talking about cases of abuse and how they end up in the justice system at the mercy of very gender-skewed judicial standards. I looked at my life and thought, ‘I could have been one of those women.’ Instead, I was sitting here with a PhD in chemistry, full custody of my daughter, and a job I enjoyed. It just turned something in my head about how privileged my existence is. I knew the choices I made were alien to millions of women in my corner and other parts of the world. I was able to make those choices simply because of my education and economic independence.”
Rizvi started thinking about how she could use computer technology to create more opportunities for other women, and this was the seed from which eLIT grew.
It was slow going at first. Rizvi recalls an information-technology conference she attended on Capitol Hill at the height of the dot.com boom, where “no one was willing to look at this proposal as a viable, socially responsible investment in any sense.” But she persevered, gradually gathering a group of eight people she knew through work or her daughter’s school and convincing each of them to join her effort.
Pia Neman, eLIT’s treasurer and a neighbor in Rizvi’s apartment complex, says, “I didn’t really realize how ambitious of an idea it was until after I’d gone to a couple of meetings and she started going around to people and asking for donations.” (Among the organizations that donated computers were Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships, the Wharton Marketing Group, and Rizvi’s own company.) “I tease her that nobody ever says No to her,” Neman says. “She says that’s because eLIT is such a good idea. But we all know there are a million good ideas out there, and they don’t all get that far off the ground. She’s also very demanding of herself. She’s tremendously dedicated and energetic.”
As a scientist, Rizvi can’t help but think of terrorism as the symptom of a bigger disease, “which is ignorance or intolerance” fed by poverty and a lack of access to education and information. “I see no better drug to treat this disease than education. If you can stop [the gene] from expressing, you can kill the disease from its very roots.”
Ultimately she would like to build upon the success of eLIT to reform madrassas, turning Islamic schools where hatred toward Westerners is often taught into technology centers. “Most families who send their young boys to madrassas do so because they’re poor and the schools provide food and clothing as well as a sense of respectability,” Rizvi says. “From early childhood they learn that anyone who doesn’t believe in their brand of Islam is an infidel and it is their duty to eliminate the world of the infidel. It’s not really their fault because they’re brainwashed.” If these students have had any exposure to Western popular culture, “they think that every man from the West is a James Bond, and every woman is walking around in a bikini and seducing men.”
What if these children were instead learning digital editing, word-processing and other marketable computer skills, Rizvi wonders. What if they went online to research what life is actually like in other countries, get advice from mentors in various professions, and take part in moderated chat rooms with students from different cultures? If the clerics who run these schools didn’t cooperate, technology centers could be set up at alternative sites to compete with the madrassas.
Whatever it would cost to create a network of such schools in places like Afghanistan or Iraq, Rizvi says, “It would still be only a fraction of what it takes to bomb countries. These children can be attracted if we provide food and clothing, and hope for a future.”
She shared this idea with President Bush a few years ago when she was invited to the White House with a group of Pakistani Americans to talk about US policy in South Asia. The invitation came just months after September 11, and Rizvi spoke bluntly. “While we’re dropping bombs and doing all these things as a way of eliminating terrorism, I believe those are short-term solutions,” she told the President. “What those things do is make one place safe for a short while and make the rest of the world even more dangerous.”
Rizvi has not heard back from Bush on her proposal, but she hopes to grow her organization enough to support one technology center at a time.
Meanwhile, she has other ideas for dousing extremism. In July she spoke to the Islamic Foundation of Villanova about how electronic literacy can increase women’s participation in societies where they face cultural and religious restrictions.
“It provides women ‘virtual purdah,’ Rizvi says. (Purdah literally means curtain but is used for different forms of covering of women.) “If a woman is sitting at home and her parents, husband, or brother do not allow her to attend a meeting regarding any kind of social issue, she has the ability to send her view or interact in different ways through electronic media. I think it has a very unique benefit for women”—and for those societies, by adding other viewpoints to the mix.
It is partly her own experience as a grad student, finding fellowship among people so different from her, that fuels Rizvi’s desire for a world less divided by national or religious boundaries. “It’s very idealistic, but I don’t feel it’s impossible,” she says. “If 18 years back I said I would have a PhD and an MBA, and I would be doing this, everyone would have thought I was crazy.” (The Queen of Paris did eventually make it to Paris, by the way. On a brief visit with friends who lived there, Rizvi was “very disappointed there were no streets of glass and no cars running on glass streets.”)
Her work with eLIT also takes her back to Pakistan occasionally. “It’s a very different feeling,” she says. “I left as a kid, emotionally sheltered and naïve. I didn’t know the world at all. And now I’m a grown woman. I think my age, my education, and the work I’ve done have lent me a credibility that’s very helpful when I go there now.”
Rizvi’s own parents, who now live in Toronto, have come around as well. While they still can’t comprehend “that a woman can live on her own and be fine,” she says, they “accept my life’s choices.”
“My father visited the other week,” Rizvi says. “He was sick. I think it’s the first time in my entire life I had a heart-to-heart conversation with my father. We actually discussed things and I felt my opinions were valued.”
As close as she is to her own daughter, Rizvi happily accepts the fact that Maham has different dreams and interests. “I loved subjects like algebra and chemistry, and she finds history and literature, and art and acting very interesting. I learn a lot from her. She’s a great kid.” Rizvi wants the future to look as bright for other young women.
One of her favorite stories is of an eLIT graduate in India who got a job with a multinational firm because she could use the computer. “This girl comes back and says, ‘I’m going to go to college and one day I’m going to be managing director of that company.’
“I felt so happy when I heard this story,” says Rizvi. “To me this is empowerment: being able to feel you can achieve anything you set your mind to. That is the sort of feeling I wish every woman could feel. It’s a gift that’s beyond any words.”
(Courtesy ©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette)


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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