Shabeena’s Quest

In some parts of Pakistan getting an education is an act of defiance, but one woman is opening her school to all.

This is the story of Shabeena, a remarkable school principal, and her quest to bring education to the children, particularly the young girls, living in the shadow of the Taliban on Pakistan’s frontier.

Despite age-old traditions that keep girls out of school and send them into arranged marriages, Shabeena’s school actively recruits them.

Afshan, a bright young girl who comes from a family of six daughters, is one of her great success stories. Living on the meager wages of a night security guard, her family is committed to each of them attending school.

Another girl, Zarina, comes from similar circumstances but has had to fight to stay in school and resist her family’s plan to marry her off at the age of 14.

The film follows Shabeena at work. We see young girls and boys in their classrooms, discussing Pakistan and its future; we hear villagers tussling with different views about education for girls; we see Shabeena recruiting for new students, persuading reluctant parents of the long-term benefits of educating girls.

And, over the course of a year, we see how Afshan and Zarina, as well as Shabeena herself, each strive to realise their dreams.

Filmmakers’ views

By director Hemal Trivedi

I was born and raised in India in a conservative Hindu priest family.

While growing up, the popular notion in our culture was that women should focus their lives on being wives and mothers. As a result, many in my extended family suggested that I train in “home management” after high school – because it would be good training for the future.


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But my own single mother said that I should get the finest education possible, and that I should follow my own dreams. It was through education, she said, that I would ultimately realise my full potential and have a better life.

Among many other gifts, my career as a film editor and filmmaker was only possible because of my mother’s belief in me and her insistence.

As in India, many regions in Pakistan have cultural norms that continue to define women only as wives and mothers. Yet there exists strong women like my own mother who fight every day for the futures of their families and the people of their villages.
Another shining example of such a hero is our central participant in this film, Shabeena, a school principal who fights every day to create opportunities for the children of a village with no running water, only one paved road, and less than one hour of electricity per day.

Most of the mothers there are illiterate, and so Shabeena’s work is compounded by first having to convince them of the importance of educating their children.

A model for its region, Shabeena’s school is giving all children who attend – and especially the girls, who have precious few options – a chance to escape poverty and seek independence.

Every day, Shabeena inspires the girls in her school just as my mother inspired me. In many ways, documenting Shabeena’s life and her work is a tribute to my mother and so many like her, who believe that every girl has the right to be educated so she too can strive for her dreams.

By co-director Mohammed Ali Naqvi

Pakistan’s literacy rate and public education system is particularly appalling outside of the Republic’s major cities.

In the rural areas, roughly 12 percent of women can read or write, and a meager three per cent of women aged 17 to 23 have access to higher education.

Pakistan all too often hits global headlines with stories of extremism and oppression, most recently the shocking story of teen education activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban.

But amongst these grim stories are also some remarkable narratives. Our film follows the progressive school principal Shabeena, an ordinary woman defiantly running a school despite militants’ threats and the risk of social ostracism.  

Women like Shabeena are heroes, and as a filmmaker and a Pakistani, it is my responsibility to celebrate them.


Watch more Witness films for global issues brought into focus through courageous and inspiring human stories.