Her husband left her to marry a second wife. Ifra was still young
then, married to a man her parents had selected for her; happy with
their three children. But the husband thought she'd grown old. He
took another wife, moved out of their flat and ceased all financial
support. "What could I do?" she asks us.
We are in Lahore, Pakistan, visiting borrowers of Kashf, one of the country's largest private microlenders. Ifra is one of the longest-term of their now 300,000 customers; one of the best, too. Even during a recent crisis when misinformation about the organization's status was rife, Ifra did not miss her repayments. "I am a believer," she tells us. "We are taught in the Koran not to cheat or steal, so how could I not pay something I knew I owed? I don't want to be unhappy in the afterlife." She is sitting in her small kiosk on a side street. The space seems tiny but fits an amazing amount of goods: big burlap sacks of lentils and rice; stacks of eggs, and breads and boxes of milk. She also sells toiletries like soaps, shampoos and body creams, hairbrushes, disinfectants, biscuits, candies. My favorite part of the kiosk houses her sewing supplies: beautiful satin ribbons, zippers, thread and needles. Indeed, it feels like you could come with random requests, and Ifra will rarely disappoint.
I ask her: "How did you get from that place where you were abandoned with no
money to here?"
"I worked. Hard. In 1998, I took my first loan from Kashf so that I
could make jewelry in my home and sell it. Otherwise, we wouldn't
have had enough money to eat, and we still had to do with very little.
I repaid and then borrowed again, and soon I started a cosmetics
business. It has been ten years, but now I have a good business. I am
happy, though I spend my days sitting on this bench from 5 in the
morning til after 11 p.m., sometimes til midnight. I've changed my life.
I want women to know they shouldn't be afraid of work."
I love this woman's spirit. She is strong and alive and unafraid.
She's a large-framed woman with dark, dancing eyes, a gap-toothed
smile and silver bracelets on her wrist. She's dressed in yellow and
white chiffon that reinforces the women's world Ifra seems always to
have created somehow. And yet, her life is still not without
The combination of her business savvy, hard work and access to credit
has enabled Ifra to make a real life for herself - so much so, that
her husband has since left the second wife to move back in with her.
Indeed, she now has another two children with this same man who
abandoned her more than a decade ago. In some ways, this is a good
story - Ifra is very much respected in the community, her family is
intact, everyone knows her. As she tells this part of the story, a
man collecting for the mosque walks by the window, and she gives him 5
rupees. "Just an everyday thing," she tells us.
I want to ask her about the choices she has made, but instead think of
the compromises women make every day in every corner of the world.
Who knows how Ifra feels about this man who left her? In some ways, it
may not matter, for she has greater status than before. And she has
greater control as well. Great choice, greater freedom - this is the
beginning. You can't meet Ifra without wanting to bet on her - and
then watch where she goes.
As for her dreams, she wants to expand soon to another storefront. "I
can buy and sell much more," she tells us, a broad smile expanding
across he face. I will borrow more, but as long as I can put aside
one-third of my money earned at the end of the day for living
expenses, one-third to put back into the business and then one-third
to repay our debt, then I will be fine. And my business will grow."