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Three cups of tea was a ticket to education

At the invitation of author Greg Mortenson, a Kashmir village woman from his next book comes to Montana to boost her confidence in leading women.

By Corinne GarciaContributor / November 6, 2008

Cultivating confidence: Fozia Naseer is taking classes at Montana State University. But just as important to her is learning how to become the kind of leader who can transmit confidence to girls in villages back home in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

Deirdre Eitel/Special to The Christian Science Monitor


Bozeman, Mont.

Bozeman , Mont.

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Walking around the remote village of Patika, in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Greg Mortenson, at well over six feet tall, was hard to miss that day in 2006. Some villagers understood he was there to build schools, but since the devastating earthquake a year before, they were used to relief workers coming and going.

Mr. Mortenson’s bestselling book, “Three Cups of Tea,” had been read and discussed in just about every woman’s book club in the US, but in Kashmir he was a virtual stranger.

Never one to miss an opportunity to learn something new, law student and teacher Fozia Naseer invited the stranger for tea in the refugee tent she shared with her mother and sister, set amid the rubble of her once pleasant town. In this Muslim part of the world, a woman inviting a man for tea was nontraditional – even bold.

But ever since she was a child worrying her conservative elders with dreams of becoming a lawyer, Ms. Naseer was not afraid to veer from the norm.

Little did she know just how far from the norm those few cups of tea would take her. Mortenson’s visit lasted just over an hour – “He talked about education,” Naseer recalls simply. But Mortenson saw in Naseer impressive drive and intellect – exactly what his nonprofit Central Asia Institute (CAI) has been trying to tap in women in the developing world for 12 years.

He left her $250 to help her finish law school, and he shot off a note to Genevieve Chabot, CAI’s international program manager, asking her to pay Naseer a visit upon her return to Kashmir.

That’s how Naseer now finds herself at Montana State University (MSU) high in the Rockies, far from her home below the towering Himalayas.

• • •

In “Three Cups of Tea,” Mortenson recounts exhilarating, often perilous stories of his immersion in Pakistani culture as he struggles to build schools for girls in mountain villages. Now, using a scholarship that MSU gave him for the person of his choice, Mortenson has immersed Naseer – who is portrayed in his upcoming second book – in American culture. Along with classes, she’s training to become a CAI liaison in Kashmir.

Getting Naseer here wasn’t easy. It involved negotiations with her traditional uncle, Ilyas Hans Sahib, a father figure to Naseer since her father died in 1984. He’d just arranged a marriage for Naseer and was wary of sending her off to America without a family escort.
Although she was bubbling with excitement at the prospect of being the first woman from her village to visit the US, she had to let him make the decision. “I never tried to talk to my uncle about coming here,” Naseer says.

It took six months of casual meetings between Ms. Chabot and Mr. Sahib to convince him that the value of the journey would outweigh perceived dangers and that Naseer’s marriage could be postponed.

Naseer now seems to fit right into the cowboy culture of this land-grant university, often wearing jeans and Western wear (topped by her colorful Muslim scarves). She has impressed her hosts, Lori and Scott Lawson, with a surprising ability to take things in stride in such a foreign culture.

“Fozia is really accepting of other lifestyles,” Mrs. Lawson says, noting that once her husband searched online to find the exact direction of Mecca, Naseer showed no discomfort breaking away to pray in their home. Mrs. Lawson says Naseer’s a quick study, too. After being shown the basement washing machine, Naseer nonchalantly threw in a load of laundry and turned it on. When they were walking back upstairs, Lawson discovered that Naseer had never seen a washing machine before that.