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In Chitral, women keep culture alive by doing good capitalism

Small businesses thrive in tourist hotspot SAMAA | Farahnaz Zahidi – Posted: Dec 24, 2021 | Last Updated: 5 days ago

In Chitral, women keep culture alive by doing good capitalism

A view from Villa Ayun.A view from Villa Ayun.

As the day starts for Bibi Rabia in Chitral’s Jughoor village, she calls out to her forty chickens for their morning feed. The brood’s eggs not only provide her family a protein-rich breakfast, but also make it possible for her to earn a living.

“I got her a few chickens to keep her busy. Zinda rehne ke liye insaan ko kuch maqsad to chahiye na,” says her son Shuja, who works in tourism in Chitral. Everyone needs a purpose to stay alive. Sixty-five-year-old Bibi Rabia survived breast cancer but after the chemotherapy, had grown depressed. But what started as a distraction has now become a livelihood.

The ethos of having work runs deep in this region. Shuja’s six sisters are all gainfully employed; one is a health worker, another a teacher, and the others run small handicraft businesses. This is nothing unique; Chitrali women are financially more empowered than those in the other parts of KP.

The assumption is that the more remote or difficult the terrain, the less empowered the women of the region. However, here in the jagged mountains of the Hindukush range a very different story is unfolding.

At a drive of less than an hour from Chitral town is Villa Ayun, a heritage home that has been turned into an eco-retreat. This was the brainchild of Maria Ul Mulk, a development practitioner, who is now managing the marketing and aesthetics of this family-owned mountain resort which she runs with her brother and mother. It is an open house for mountaineers, scholars, dignitaries or foreign tourists passing through Chitral on the Silk Route.

Converting it into an eco-resort was merely a logical progression. It was always a place that people wanted to visit, given the location, the imagination-defying views, and the background of the Ul Mulk family. The pandemic and resultant travel restrictions led to a surge in local tourism and Chitral was high on the list of must-see places. Social media helped draw people to this eco-retreat in particular.

“Our grandfather, Khush Ahmed Ul Mulk, was a renowned environmentalist whose ethos shaped the whole idea behind Villa Ayun—an eco-resort that now runs entirely on renewable energy, grows its own organic produce and where almost everything is farm-to-table,” says Maria. “I conceptualized setting up a retreat that is a blueprint for eco-tourism rather than being a cookie-cutter hotel.”

The family feared the erosion of the physical and cultural environment of Chitral at the hands of mass tourism as has been the fate of other tourist hotspots in Pakistan. “What was originally a fort built by my ancestors in the 1920s is Villa Ayun today,” says Maria. “Earthquakes and passing time caused structural damage to the fort, which was eventually brought down. But elaborate woodwork from the old fort was restored and used in our reconstructed ancestral home.” Thus its charm is the visible and deliberate preservation of heritage as well as an organic experience for the weary urban tourist who laps up the joys offered by organic vegetables and fruit from the nearby orchards, and honey farmed right there.

The Ul Mulk family has divided the work of running the six-room hotel. Maria’s brother Junaid Ul Mulk looks after business development and sales. A pivotal role is played by their mother Parveen who is in charge of operations. “My mother has always been the one who runs the state, managing farming tenancies and the works,” says Maria.

According to Masood Ul Mulk, Maria’s father and CEO of the Sarhad Rural Support Programme, an NGO working on poverty alleviation in North West Pakistan, working conditions for women have come a long way. “Some four decades ago when we needed female staff for SRSP, local women were not willing to do it due to conservative mindsets,” he says.

The NGO worked on women-centric interventions such as drinking water and electricity in previously deprived areas. “We have developed a localized systems of lending for small female entrepreneurs,” says Masood. Women get vocational training in their villages as they do not want to travel too far out. Shuja confirms this trend. “In villages, women have started setting up beauty salons and handicraft centres as well as gift and clothes shops at home. NGOs in the district have helped train them.”

In Masood’s opinion one reason why women are working to earn in Chitral is that the farmers generally have small pieces of land to call their own, so families cannot sustain themselves by relying on agriculture alone, and must find other sources of livelihood.

Shah Puri of Nan Cafe in Booni
Shah Puri of Nan Cafe in Booni

About three hours from Ayun is another establishment that is also run by women: the cosy Nan Café in Booni, Upper Chitral. To arrive here you need to travel back from Villa Ayun to Chitral and then about two hours further north.

“My mother is the lifeline of this eatery,” says Adnan Ali. “In Khowar language which we speak, Nan means mother. That is where we got this name.” His mother Shah Puri peeps in every few minutes from an aperture between the seating area and the kitchen where she and her female helpers prepare tray after tray of fresh steaming hot Shula, one of the most popular dishes in Chitrali cuisine made of rice and beef broth. Shah Puri hails from a small village called Ghoru Lasht, Parkusap. Some thirty years ago, she, her husband, and her four children migrated to Booni in search of a better livelihood.

Shah Puri’s journey begun when her husband was appointed a watchman and janitor for Pamir Public School, and College, and she was employed as a cook in the cafeteria. Their children were given a free education as a benefit of their employment. After 15 years of this job, the enterprising Shah Puri began working towards starting her own business. Her dream was to open a café for tea and snacks, and provide catering for events. With encouragement and support from her family, Shah Puri took the road less travelled, and eventually found donors who helped her open the cafe. Today, Nan Café is a favourite among locals and tourists, and on an average day it has a footfall of more than a hundred people. They also supply home delivery, take-away and catering.

Shah Puri’s husband helps her on his days off, as do her two sons Adnan and Tahir. As Adnan serves a platter of Cheera Shapik—a baked bread filled with thickened milk—he shares his mother’s success story. “Initially the community was surprised to see a woman running a restaurant. But now she has become a role model for local women, and more and more Chitrali women are now becoming empowered like my mother.”


Getting our act together – With Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam – A podcast

Taking care of your heart, mind, body and soul in the light of Islam, and how a simpler life is a better life. Farahnaz in conversation with Saadia Tariq on the podcast Dhaani

In this podcast we talk about :- Various human dimensions; Balance, moderation; Awareness & implementation; Simplicity. & Healing—With-Farahnaz-Zahidi-Moazzam—Episode-111-e137hqu?fbclid=IwAR3dj3DOxyAklutniBT9XCGFZEVOU1-JnSXB52K30xzjlujq7pTuScS9NEI#:~:text=https%3A//—With-Farahnaz-Zahidi-Moazzam—Episode-111-e137hqu/a-a5v1sgl

A case of blurred boundaries: Women Working from Home During the Pandemic

By Farahnaz Zahidi Tue, 05, 21

As Pakistan is still grappling with the third wave of the pandemic and strict lockdowns in place, working women find themselves not only physically more drained, but also emotionally more exhausted. You! takes a look…

When Covid-19 made its first appearance in Pakistan, and offices started shutting down, Reshma Aftab initially felt like she was getting a break from the rut of having to spend the entire day away from home due to her rewarding but time-consuming full-time job. “I was initially happy that I will finally get a chance to spend more time with my son. But as we started to get into the home-based work routine, I realised how difficult it was. I had to work both ‘for home’ and ‘from home’. My double job had started,” says Aftab. Her family’s expectations suddenly increased. “They wanted me to become a trained chef. Food Fusion recipes and pictures of enticing cuisines on family chat groups added fuel to the fire. Cooking was never my expertise, but I had to up my game,” she shares. However, cooking and housework was not the biggest of Aftab’s problems. As a Senior Executive, she was provided with much-needed physical resources like desktop screens and comfortable chairs by her organisation. But the biggest trial for her was having no control over timings of meetings, having to attend official phone calls and virtual meetings without any sense of privacy, and personal time and space. “That is where the lines between my personal life and professional life got blurred,” elucidates Aftab.

Reshma Aftab

The pressure on women working from home seems to be disproportionately more, as compared to their male counterparts. With Pakistan still grappling with the third wave of the pandemic and strict lockdowns in place, women find themselves not only physically more drained, but also emotionally more exhausted. While women are known to be naturally adept at multi-tasking, the loss of boundaries and no set timings of office work owing to virtual meetings and online communication channels at any and all hours has made the situation difficult for Pakistan’s female workforce left with no option but to work from home. This leaves them with some pros, but many cons.

Cyma Hasan

For Cyma Hasan who works as an Associate Director at a media house, work from home was not an easy change to grapple with initially. “There was no concept of timing. We were literally working 24/7, even at sehri time during Ramazan. Both the clients and the office staff assumed that we had no life or family, and were available round the clock just because we were home,” tells Hasan, echoing the sentiments of many women; who face the difficulties of the merging of their professional and personal lives due to the working from home arrangement.

For Sadaf Alam, a teacher and a mother of two, the learning curve has not been easy, both at home and at work. “Once the school made the decision to close down, teachers had roughly two days to make lesson plans, and make sure their students were equipped with everything necessary to learn digitally. It was a challenge for the teachers to learn the workings of an online Classroom,” expresses Alam, sharing that one of the main challenges for teachers is taking online classes with parents being around. “We are expected to be available all the time for virtual meetings. Now students also message on online classrooms, and we are supposed to respond to their queries as soon as possible,” adds Alam.

Dr Asha Bedar

Clinical Psychologist Dr Asha Bedar who, in the course of her practice, works closely with women on a range of psychological issues, explains that while working from home has its advantages, but for women, there’s also a typically long list of difficulties they face because of societal gender roles. “With home – and everything to do with it – being traditionally seen as a woman’s domain, women’s responsibilities are multiplied many times over when their work life is also attached to the home space. Not only does this mean no break from home, but it also means they are expected to be even more involved in household matters, because they are at home,” she observes. Many of Bedar’s clients, who are working from home mothers, share that their home office is not taken seriously by family members. Visitors, kids issues, kitchen matters – all pressing issues that were somehow being managed by other family members while they were working in ‘real’ offices now fall within their already heavy load of responsibilities because they are physically present at home.

Ume Laila Azhar

During the pandemic, several aspects of working from home and its effects on women’s well-being and mental health have been brought to light. “While it’s in one way ideal for women with young children to stay at home and work, it also burdens working women with triple burden. Online job or virtual full-time work where for eight to nine hours one has to consecutively work online, sitting and looking at screen and attending meetings can severely affect the health of women,” comments Ume Laila Azhar, Executive Director of Homenet Pakistan, a network of organisations formed to raise awareness about the working conditions of female home-based workers. With children attending online classes, domestic help not turning up due to lockdowns, never-ending household chores, extended hours of sitting and exposure to screen-time, women today have a lot to juggle. “Maybe we all, me too as a woman, were not prepared and ready for this. As a result, stress and emotional blockage is noticeable. In personal and extended relationships, silent symptoms of depression are creeping in for many women. This is the dilemma of educated working women, whether in the corporate sector, banks, teaching, or in the development sector; they are unaware of how their mental health is under threat,” says Azhar candidly.

“Our office is trying their best to ensure our mental wellbeing but it is very difficult to maintain a healthy personal equilibrium in these circumstances,” notices Aftab.

“During the Covid-19 situation, many working women have reported high levels of stress, anxiety and often health issues due to a lack of rest, support and a break away from home because of the significant increase in responsibility, and without not just adequate support but also an understanding or even acknowledgement of this change in their lives,” maintains Dr Bedar.

According to a report titled Gender Differences in the Impact of COVID-19, published in 2020 in the USA by the Center for Economic and Social Research, women carried a heavier load than men in providing childcare after schools closed due to Covid-19. Compared to 14 per cent of men, 44 per cent of women reported being the only one in the household providing care. Among women with children in the household, the percentage with at least mild symptoms of psychological distress peaked in early April 2020 at 49 per cent. In comparison, one-third of men with children reported mild symptoms of psychological distress.

Teaching is a profession that is dominated by women, and this change has been tough for both students and teachers. Virtual teaching is not just challenging, but the absence of sharing a physical space with students is testing for teachers, as nothing makes up for human interaction in person. Alam shares that she was used to seeing her students daily and talking with them in person. Delivering lessons online, according to her, is a whole different ball game.

In addition, the responsibilities at home need to be handled as well. “I have to assist my children with their studies too. Previously my time was clearly divided; I gave 8 am to 2 pm to the school, and the remaining day was for house chores and my children’s homework. But now I’m juggling all three things simultaneously all day long,” adds Alam.

Aftab had to circumvent many things too. “When they found out that the daughter-in-law was finally at home, my in-laws decided to come over and stay for a bit; it was difficult to explain to them that working from home doesn’t mean that I am on a holiday,” she voices.

“For some women, this double triple burden of work – which includes paid work, caretaking work, and social obligations – is reinforced because, with women, the idea of paid work is fragile, and is often seen as a hobby as opposed to an important function,” observes Dr Bedar. When paid work is moved to the traditional domain, it is perceived as even less important, and expectations to be more involved in the home grow. But even in situations where women’s earnings are an important or only part of the household income, they are still expected to take on a greater share of household work when they are working from home.

Yet, despite the challenges, many women like Hasan have learnt to adjust to this new working arrangement and use it to their advantage. “Flexible timings and more time at home has given me more time to bond with my only child; I now may find it very difficult to go back to a 9-to-5 job. With MS Teams and Zoom there, you realise that you don’t have to be in office space all the time,” comments Hasan. For Alam, the plus has been the added bonding with colleagues as they help each other in learning how to teach digitally. And for Aftab, the family time seems the light at the end of the tunnel. “I feel I have lost on my personal time, but a part of me feels satisfied that as a family we get to spend more time with each other.

Farahnaz Zahidi is a freelance journalist and editor with a focus on human-centric stories. She also works as a Communications Strategist.

Action items for a healthy work-life balance

Working women are encouraged to recognise that the perfect balance between work and home life is an unattainable myth. Instead, consider work among the multiple life roles that you manage along with other roles. Each role may require more effort/time than others across the course of the year and throughout your life. Prioritising your roles can help you decide how best to manage your time across your various roles and responsibilities. Each will depend on your personal situation, context, and preferences.

Adapt your attitude: Acknowledge your feelings – positive, negative, and neutral – they are all valid and need to be expressed. Lower your expectations – ‘perfection’ does not exist, and it is okay if you are not as productive as you think you should be. Be okay with just doing your best with the resources you have. Practice self-compassion (e.g., “I made a mistake, but I’m human, and making mistakes is okay.”).

Engage in self-care: Establish boundaries so that you are not taking on extra burdens. Prioritise a relaxation or self-care activity as you are able – taking care of yourself will help you function best in your roles. Participate in teletherapy if desired and available.

Become more organised: Create a structured but flexible schedule. Establish dedicated spaces for certain activities (i.e., work space, play space). Simplify your task list into what is the highest priority, allowing for flexibility. Delegate some tasks to others with clear expectations, as applicable.

Stay connected: Evaluate who you want to invest your energy in and what formats of connection (e.g., Facetime, social media) are most rewarding for you. Have a weekly check-in meeting with a friend or family member who is experiencing similar challenges at home.

If you have children, involve them in your planning: Create a structured but flexible schedule and allow your children to make choices about that structure so they have buy-in. Have children Facetime family members and play games like Charades, Pictionary, etc. Set them up with a task like a jigsaw puzzle and set a timer for them – if they do not bother you until the timer goes off, then they get a small reward (ideally a toy or a sticker rather than food). Give them 2–3 task options and let them choose which one they want to do. This gives them some autonomy.


This article was published in YOU Magazine, The News:


Farahnaz ZahidiPublished April 25, 2021Facebook CountTwitter Share   0

Composite Illustration by Saad Arifi
Composite Illustration by Saad Arifi

Constant aches and pains led Salma Ghaffar, school teacher and mother of four to reach out to a doctor who got some lab tests done. “I remember experiencing fatigue, forgetfulness and brain fogs,” she says. “I would think about something, and then it would slip from my mind.”

The test results confirmed that Ghaffar had hypothyroidism. “It’s been over two decades now and I am on thyroid medication for life.”

Thyroid disorders impact multiple aspects of a person’s health, and are some of the most common endocrine disorders, particularly in women. According to a medical study titled “Subclinical Hypothyroidism: Frequency, clinical presentations and treatment indications,” published in the Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, a whopping 93.8 percent of the patients in the study with Subclinical Hypothyroidism were females, whereas only 6.2 percent were male, making thyroid disorders predominantly female-centric.

The American Thyroid Association (ATA) states that women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems, and one woman in eight will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.

Although easily treatable, awareness about thyroid disorders is limited. Up to 60 percent of those with thyroid disease in the US are unaware of their condition, as per ATA. The number of those cognisant of thyroid disorders in Pakistan is understandably fewer, and there is no data available to indicate the percentage of the population’s awareness in this regard.

Often patients keep going round in circles and get treated for symptoms but not the cause. More recently, medical practitioners have begun testing thyroid levels more than before, and these disorders are now coming to the fore as the core reason for common conditions such as weight issues, infertility, depression and anxiety, chronic fatigue, or even developmental and growth issues.

Thyroid disorders are among the most undiagnosed and misdiagnosed of health problems, impacting more women than men. But early diagnosis and treatment can fix many of the issues caused by them

The butterfly-shaped thyroid gland at the base of the neck is small in size, but it impacts one’s overall well-being. Aches, pains, hair loss, constant fatigue, fluctuations in weight, a fuzzy brain feeling, insomnia, feeling excessively hot or abnormally cold, depression, anxiety, and disturbances in the menstrual cycle are among the effects of thyroid disorders.

“The thyroid gland can be seen relatively easily if enlarged, especially if you extend your neck or swallow,” Professor Emerita Tasnim Ahsan, an endocrinologist, explains.

Thyroid disorders, especially hypothyroidism, are the commonest of all endocrine disorders all over the world, barring diabetes. “About 25 to 30 percent of our patients have a thyroid issue,” says Dr Asma Ahmed, consultant endocrinologist at the Aga Khan University Hospital.” There is also a high prevalence of goiter in the female population, attributed to estrogen’s proliferative effect on the thyroid, according to Ahmed.

“Thyroid dysfunction can be of two types: hyperthyroidism — an excess of thyroxine, a hormone that the thyroid gland produces — or hyporthyroidism, a deficiency of thyroxine,” says Ahsan.

Symptoms of an underactive thyroid, according to Ahmed, include constipation, fatigue, hoarse voice, puffy face, and dry skin. As hypothyroidism slows down metabolism, the mind and physical activity also slow down.

“It’s so distressing when one doesn’t know what is wrong with them,” says Sameera*, project manager at a multinational company. “You could be the only odd one wearing a shawl while everyone else is feeling hot. My hypothyroidism was diagnosed after years of suffering. I used to wonder of it’s all in my head.” Once she started correct medication, her life slid back to normalcy.

Hyperthyroidism, the opposite of hypothyroidism speeds up everything, according to Ahsan, and the patient becomes anxious or fidgety. Other symptoms include fine tremors of the hand or tongue, a staring look in the eyes, palpitations and cardiac rhythm problems or heart failure in elderly patients.

Ahmed explains that symptoms of hyperthyroidism in the body are usually dramatic and abrupt. “Classic symptoms may include increased frequency of bowel movements, weight loss despite a normal or increased appetite,” she says. “There can be a thyroid swelling at the base of the neck. In case of autoimmune Graves’ diseases, it can result in a protruding of the eyes.”

​Whether there is a rise in thyroid disorders because of rising prevalence of autoimmune diseases, or simply increased awareness, early diagnosis and treatment remain the cornerstone of management of thyroid disorders. “It’s not a bad idea to get your thyroid tested if you’re feeling tired all the time,” concludes Ahmed.

Thyroid hormone levels, if managed well, can help thousands of unaware patients, with debilitating manifestations of thyroid disorders, to lead optimal lives. “Mental health can be affected by both hyperthyroidism — mainly anxiety — and hypothyroidism, mainly depression,” says Ahsan. “The body doesn’t like too much or too little thyroxine, so there is an intricate mechanism of keeping this hormone stable.” When the body is unable to maintain this balance naturally, that is where medication for thyroid disorders steps in.

“My weight gain was so rapid within three months that I couldn’t fit into my clothes comfortably,” says Rushna Shamsi, a teacher and mother of four. “Body shaming and not knowing why this was happening depressed me. I tried weight loss injections, yet there was no change, just more depression and anxiety.”

Research on the internet, visiting doctors, and several blood tests followed. Shamsi was finally diagnosed with hypothyroidism. “The invisible reason for all my health issues now had a name, and could be treated. My thyroid hormone levels keep fluctuating, so I get tested every quarter,” she adds.

For most patients, regularly monitoring thyroid hormone levels is imperative. “As my thyroid hormone levels fluctuate, I have to adjust my medicine dosage accordingly,” says Ghaffar. “I have been advised to get my levels checked every three months.”

For Tahira*, a homemaker, her disorder was more than just an under or over-active thyroid. “I was 35 when I saw a slight swelling in front of my neck,” she says. “There were no other symptoms. Surgery was advised to remove nodules as the first step, but the biopsy showed malignancy. The second surgery was a thyroidectomy,” says Tahira who went through radioactive iodine therapy.

“More than the cancer, it’s the therapies that leave you weak, especially the bones, resulting in lifelong aches and pains,” she says. The ordeal was not easy and acceptance took time but, with faith and family support, she has pulled through. “Even the smallest thyroid problems should be taken seriously to nip the issue in the bud.”

Thyroid disorders are straightforward to diagnose, not expensive to treat, and even cancers in the thyroid have a good prognosis, yet many patients remain undiagnosed. Untreated thyroidal disorders, Ahmed believes, can manifest serious consequences, especially heart disease and endocrine emergencies, such as coma. “It can also cause infertility and recurrent miscarriages,” she says.

Thyroid disorders can affect a person of any age. “In children and teens, it results in poor growth, resulting in short stature, delayed puberty and poor mental development,” says Ahsan. “Babies may be born with decreased thyroid hormones production ability, which can lead to slow mental and physical development. Hence it’s important to screen every child born for TSH levels.”

When asked about the reasons for thyroid disorders, medical experts are unanimous in the answers. “Iodine seems to play an important role in thyroid disorders, as it is an important trace element required for the synthesis of thyroid hormones,” says Ahmed.

Both doctors agree that the most common cause for thyroid dysfunction is autoimmunity which may have a familial or genetic propensity. “The genetic cause is most often linked to autoimmune disorders such as Hashimoto’s disease, a hypothyroidism in which the immune system attacks one’s own thyroid and results in over or underproduction of thyroid hormones,” explains Ahmed.

“Graves’ disease is also an autoimmune disorder, a type of hyperthyroidism that speeds up metabolism,” adds Ahsan.

Whether there is a rise in thyroid disorders because of rising prevalence of autoimmune diseases, or simply increased awareness, early diagnosis and treatment remain the cornerstone of management of thyroid disorders. “It’s not a bad idea to get your thyroid tested if you’re feeling tired all the time,” concludes Ahmed.

(names changed for privacy) The writer is a freelance journalist with a focus on human-centric stories. She tweets @FarahnazZahidi*

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 25th, 2021

Women in the sphere of Islamic learning

Farahnaz Zahidi LiteratiMarch 21, 2021

  • Usha Sanyal presents her research on contemporary female scholars of Islam in her new book

Books about Islamic scholarship are published decade after decade. Those written about women Muslim scholars of Islam are rarer. This is especially true of books about contemporary female scholars of Islam. This is the small niche where the book Scholars of Faith – South Asian Muslim Women and the Embodiment of Religious Knowledge finds itself. Bound in hardcover, the book is spread over some 400 plus pages. The book’s first edition was published by the Oxford University Press in India in October 2020. The author, Usha Sanyal, is an independent scholar and academic based in the USA, whose prior research has focused on the history of the Barelvi or Ahle Sunnat Wa Jamaat movement in British India.

In the book in question, the author focused on the emergence of Muslim girls and women in the sphere of Islamic learning. The trend of acquiring in-depth Islamic education – using both a traditionalist and classical methodology and a contemporary, modern approach – has increased among South Asian women particularly since the latter part of the 20th Century, whether these are women living in the urban or peri-urban areas of their own countries or are part of the Diaspora now settled in the West.

Scholars of Faith is relevant to the Pakistani readership for more than one reason. To begin with, the book is based on an ethnographic study of two institutions of Islamic learning for women. One of those is the Jami’a Nur seminary in Shahjahanpur, India, and the other Al-Huda International Welfare Foundation, an Islamic educational institute and not-for-profit non-governmental organisation known mainly for imparting Islamic education and supporting the underprivileged. Al-Huda has been founded by Dr Farhat Hashmi. The institute’s students and beneficiaries are today spread across continents. From what started as small gatherings of female students, it now has branches spread not just across Pakistan, but also in other countries. Its second largest hub is at Mississauga, Canada.

Sanyal says that she had not heard of Al-Huda till 2009 when she presented a paper at a conference, and someone in the audience mentioned it. She later looked it up online. “I then decided to sign up for the Taleem-ul-Quran course that was being offered later that year as a part-time student, taking classes twice a week. For me, it was a way of studying the Quran, which I had not done before and wanted very much to do.” Her second reason was to do research about these classes, especially the ones online. “I made it known to my instructors and those in authority that I am a non-Muslim and wanted to do this for research purposes. They gave me permission to stay in the class, and thus I continued until the course was over some three and a half years later,” adds Sanyal.

The common lens through which the status of women in Islam is seen often perpetuates the narrative that Islamic laws tend to restrict the mobility, growth and empowerment of women. The book holds that the relationship that today’s South Asian women have with Islam and Islamic education lends them new perspectives, and their application of this knowledge to their practical lives and social status is different from Muslim women of preceding generations.

Early on in the book, Sanyal puts forth the question: “Why are South Asian Muslim girls and women seeking opportunities to acquire religious learning today, and what do they wish to accomplish with their newfound knowledge? What is the impact of women’s greater access to education in South Asia; what societal changes does this exemplify and portend?” This is the premise of the book, and the pages that follow attempt to answer these questions.

The two institutions she has chosen for her research are not just on the opposite sides of the Pakistan-India border, they are also poles apart. In terms of worldviews, global context, and Islamic perspectives, the two institutes do not find themselves on the same page as the author mentions on Page 37 under the heading The Shared Moral Universe of the Barelvis and Al-Huda: Iman, Ahkam, Adab and Da’wa. Yet, in the following paragraphs, the author discusses the shared ethos of the two on core Islamic principles and ideals.

The book offers insights into the curricula offered to students at the two institutes. It includes personal accounts of and quotes from students. On Page 252, for example, she mentions how the word-for-word translation of the Quran is taught at Al-Huda with “…constant reference to the students’ own day-to-day lives…”.

Sanyal has touched upon difficult and layered subjects like the common impressions about Al-Huda, and her actual observations about how and what of the teaching there. She looks closely at both on-site and online classes of the institute (Chapter 8). She dedicates an entire chapter (Chapter 7) to Al-Huda’s intellectual foundations, discussing everything from the scholarship of Dr Farhat Hashmi and her husband Dr Idrees Zubair, to Al-Huda’s approach to science and everyday life. “The Quranic material is seamlessly integrated with modern science, technology, and the everyday realities of the students” states the book on Page 289.

Commenting on Dr Farhat Hashmi’s style and methodology of teaching, the author states on Page 304 that “… Farhat Hashmi brings in an array of topics including history, psychology, science, religious and social etiquette, and advice on time management and interpersonal skills, among others, peppering her lecture throughout with Quranic and Hadith references in fluent Arabic. The style is erudite but personal, making constant connections between the verses being studied and the lives of the students before her”. While looking at Al-Huda and Farhat Hashmi from a purely research-based lens, and also adding references of earlier academic studies that were often critical of Al-Huda, the author juxtaposes these in the book with positive comments. An Al-Huda teacher is quoted on Page 315 as saying that what she most admired in Farhat Hashmi was that “… whatever she preached to her students, whatever ideals she asked them to live by, she herself followed them even more faithfully than she asked them to. Whatever she was ‘on the outside’, she was also ‘on the inside’.”

In the course of Chapter 8, the author looks deeply at Al-Huda’s institute in Canada, and praises Dr Farhat Hashmi’s daughter and teacher of Quranic translation and exegesis (tafsir), Taimiyyah Zubair. “Taimiyyah is a very knowledgeable, hard-working, and highly dedicated teacher of word-for-word translation of the Quran from Arabic into English, and an avid student of tafsir” states the author on Page 325.

According to Sanyal, women Muslim scholars of Islam can and do bring a vital perspective to bear on the study of Islam. “The study of Islam at a deep level has for centuries been the privilege of Muslim men, but that is beginning to change, with important new voices, like Al-Huda, for example,” she adds.

Scholars of Faith: South Asian Muslim Women and the Embodiment of Religious Knowledge

Author: Usha Sanyal

Publisher: Oxford University Press, India (2020)

Pages: 409 (Hardcover)

Price: $65

The writer is a freelance journalist and editor with a focus on human rights, education, health, and literature. She also works as a communications practitioner and media trainer.

Surah Yusuf – The Best of Stories

ARTICLESBy: Farahnaz Zahidi March 4, 2021

Surah Yusuf, Chapter 12 of the Qur’an, is the most engaging, timeless and a complete story ever. It was relevant back then and it is relevant today.

Prophet Yusuf (AS), known for his miraculously good looks, was beautiful both inside out. The real impact of this Surah is how it helps beautify relationships and teaches invaluable lessons in times of difficulty and ease. Often people advise pregnant women to recite it to have a beautiful baby. This tradition is not proven by any verse of the Qur’an or hadith. This is certainly not what the Surah is meant to be used for.

The Qur’an itself calls the true story of Prophet (Yusuf) “the best of stories”. In the beginning of Surah Yusuf, Allah (SWT) says:

نَحْنُ نَقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ أَحْسَنَ الْقَصَصِ

“We relate to you, [O Muhammad], the best of stories…”
[Surah Yusuf:3]

It is the story of the life of Yusuf (AS). Here are a few reflections on this Surah:

  • There are disadvantages of announcing your plans and showing off blessings – the evil eye (Nazr-e-Bad) and jealousy haunts behind. Do not share plans till they materialize. For example: initial pregnancy, intent to marry someone or the initial job interview that went well. Don’t also announce good dreams. Yaqub (AS) advised his sons:

قَالَ يَا بُنَيَّ لَا تَقْصُصْ رُؤْيَاكَ عَلَىٰ إِخْوَتِكَ فَيَكِيدُوا لَكَ كَيْدًا ۖ إِنَّ الشَّيْطَانَ لِلْإِنسَانِ عَدُوٌّ مُّبِينٌ ﴿٥﴾۔

“He said, “O my son, do not relate your vision to your brothers or they will contrive against you a plan. Indeed Satan, to man, is a manifest enemy.”
[Surah Yusuf: 5]

  • There are three elements of sabrun jameel (beautiful patience): Don’t announce your suffering all the time. Don’t complain to everyone. And don’t imply that you are perfect and free of faults.

فَصَبْرٌ جَمِيلٌ

“So patience is most fitting…”
[Surah Yusuf: 18]

  • Maturity does not come without having gone through difficult times. Tough times have a way of making us stronger and hopefully wiser.

وَكَذَٰلِكَ مَكَّنَّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَلِنُعَلِّمَهُ مِن تَأْوِيلِ الْأَحَادِيثِ ۚ وَاللَّـهُ غَالِبٌ عَلَىٰ أَمْرِهِ وَلَـٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ ﴿٢١﴾۔

“And thus, We established Joseph in the land that We might teach him the interpretation of events. And Allah is predominant over His affair, but most of the people do not know.”
[Surah Yusuf: 21]

  • The credit goes to Allah (SWT) if we do something good and are able to ward off a temptation. The biggest temptation is narcissism and vanity.

كَذَٰلِكَ لِنَصْرِفَ عَنْهُ السُّوءَ وَالْفَحْشَاءَ ۚ إِنَّهُ مِنْ عِبَادِنَا الْمُخْلَصِينَ ﴿٢٤﴾۔

“And thus [it was] that We should avert from him evil and immorality. Indeed, he was of Our chosen servants.”
[Surah Yusuf: 24]

  • People don’t listen to our tableegh (preaching) if we have not developed a relationship with them. See the example of Yusuf (AS). He had built a bond with the other inmates in jail. That is why they listened to him. Point: Work on relationships with sincerity.
  • Effects of your a’amaal (deeds), whether they are good or bad, reflect on your face. In a world where you have to keep marketing yourself, humility becomes difficult. But it is important for tazkiyah (purification) of the nafs (self) to not announce your achievements all the time. However, undue humility can hamper you getting the deserved position. Therefore, maintain a balance. Tell when necessary and offer your services where needed. Undue modesty will stop you from doing the duty Allah (SWT) assigned you. Be like Yousuf (AS) – humble yet confident and giving Allah (SWT) credit for everything good.

Reflection of Qualities of Yusuf (AS)

  • To be a Muhsin (one with a beautiful attitude and nature).
  • Sabr (patience) is inevitable. A reactive, inflammable personality cannot be a muhsin.

وَكَذَٰلِكَ مَكَّنَّا لِيُوسُفَ فِي الْأَرْضِ يَتَبَوَّأُ مِنْهَا حَيْثُ يَشَاءُ ۚ نُصِيبُ بِرَحْمَتِنَا مَن نَّشَاءُ ۖ وَلَا نُضِيعُ أَجْرَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ ﴿٥٦﴾۔

“And thus We established Joseph in the land to settle therein wherever he willed. We touch with Our mercy whom We will, and We do not allow to be lost the reward of those who do good.”
[Surah Yusuf: 26]

  • In the era of Facebook and Instagram where we share every joy and share every plan with hundreds, we need to remind ourselves that nazar-e-bad [evil eye] is a reality. Safeguard yourself against it with prayers, especially the last 2 chapters of the Qur’an. Also do not announce your plans and every achievement and joy. Yaqub (AS) advised his sons:

وَقَالَ يَا بَنِيَّ لَا تَدْخُلُوا مِن بَابٍ وَاحِدٍ وَادْخُلُوا مِنْ أَبْوَابٍ مُّتَفَرِّقَةٍ ۖ وَمَا أُغْنِي عَنكُم مِّنَ اللَّـهِ مِن شَيْءٍ ۖ إِنِ الْحُكْمُ إِلَّا لِلَّـهِ ۖ عَلَيْهِ تَوَكَّلْتُ ۖ وَعَلَيْهِ فَلْيَتَوَكَّلِ الْمُتَوَكِّلُونَ ﴿٦٧﴾۔

“And he said, “O my sons, do not enter from one gate but enter from different gates; and I cannot avail you against [the decree of] Allah at all. The decision is only for Allah; upon Him I have relied, and upon Him let those who would rely [indeed] rely.”
[Surah Yusuf: 67]

  • “Do not grieve yourself over what they did” – Beautiful advice Yusuf (AS) gave to his brother Bin Yameen. Reminder to self: Stop focusing on the few people who are a test for us and bother/hurt us. Instead, focus on those who are the coolness of your eyes, and are good to you. Ramadan is the best time to let go of this baggage of “I am hurt by him/her”.

فَلَا تَبْتَئِسْ بِمَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ ﴿٦٩﴾۔

“…so do not despair over what they used to do [to me].”
[Surah Yusuf: 69]

  • There is always someone who is better than you even in the things that you are good at. And the most Knowing and Perfect is Allah (SWT). So stay humble. You are not the ultimate. Never.

نَرْفَعُ دَرَجَاتٍ مَّن نَّشَاءُ ۗ وَفَوْقَ كُلِّ ذِي عِلْمٍ عَلِيمٌ ﴿٧٦﴾۔

“We raise in degrees whom We will, but over every possessor of knowledge is one [more] knowing.”
[Surah Yusuf: 76]

  • Allah (SWT) knows the reality of people’s intentions and situations. Therefore, stop judging people. You do not know their journey. You have not traveled their path.

قَالَ أَنتُمْ شَرٌّ مَّكَانًا ۖ وَاللَّـهُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا تَصِفُونَ ﴿٧٧﴾۔

He said, “You are worse in position, and Allah is most knowing of what you describe.”
[Surah Yusuf: 77]

  • A sure shot test of whether you are a muhsin or not – check your behavior with those who are under you or you have power them. As a parent, as a senior at work, as a ruler or as someone who has a house help. How are you with those who don’t have power over you? This was the quality of Yusuf (AS) as he was told:

إِنَّا نَرَاكَ مِنَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ

“Indeed, we see you as a doer of good.”
[Surah Yusuf: 78]

  • Complain of your pain, heartache and hurt caused only to Allah (SWT) for only He can help. Those whom you gossip to cannot help you. As Yaqub (AS) said:

قَالَ إِنَّمَا أَشْكُو بَثِّي وَحُزْنِي إِلَى اللَّـهِ وَأَعْلَمُ مِنَ اللَّـهِ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ ﴿٨٦﴾۔

He said, “I only complain of my suffering and my grief to Allah, and I know from Allah that which you do not know.”
[Surah Yusuf: 86]

  • Give people the benefit of doubt. And at times even if you know they intended to harm you, do not announce in front of them that you know. Sometimes it is wiser to hold your peace. Yusuf (AS) did not disclose himself and subtly questioned his brothers who did him wrong whilst not giving himself away:

قَالَ هَلْ عَلِمْتُم مَّا فَعَلْتُم بِيُوسُفَ وَأَخِيهِ إِذْ أَنتُمْ جَاهِلُونَ ﴿٨٩﴾۔

“ Yusuf and his brother when you were ignorant?”
 [Surah Yusuf: 89]

  • If someone hurt you a long time ago – it could even be a parent, a sibling, a friend, don’t think to yourself, ‘I can never forget/forgive what he/she did’. Let go! Forgiving is healing for yourself more than anyone else. Yusuf (AS) said the following to his brothers:

قَالَ لَا تَثْرِيبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْيَوْمَ ۖ يَغْفِرُ اللَّـهُ لَكُمْ ۖ وَهُوَ أَرْحَمُ الرَّاحِمِينَ ﴿٩٢﴾۔

“He said, “No blame will there be upon you today. Allah will forgive you; and He is the most merciful of the merciful.”
[Surah Yusuf: 92]

  • Sometimes in the long run, grief leads to happiness and failure leads to success. The very person that caused you great distress will become the cause of your happiness. The situation will get better. Hang in there. (12:96)
  • Your company leads you to become the person you are. Therefore, choose your company carefully. Good company in this world will lead us to be in the company of the righteous in the Hereafter. Choose wisely. We learn this from Yusuf (AS)’s dua:

رَبِّ قَدْ آتَيْتَنِي مِنَ الْمُلْكِ وَعَلَّمْتَنِي مِن تَأْوِيلِ الْأَحَادِيثِ ۚ فَاطِرَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ أَنتَ وَلِيِّي فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ ۖ تَوَفَّنِي مُسْلِمًا وَأَلْحِقْنِي بِالصَّالِحِينَ ﴿١٠١﴾۔

“My Lord, You have given me [something] of sovereignty and taught me of the interpretation of dreams. Creator of the heavens and earth, You are my protector in this world and in the Hereafter. Cause me to die a Muslim and join me with the righteous.”
[Surah Yusuf: 101]

It is time to incorporate these lessons into our lives and learn from the best of the stories given in the Qur’an.

Farahnaz Zahidi

Farahnaz Zahidi is a journalist, writer, teacher and media trainer.

Unsafe at home – Domestic Violence during the Pandemic

Tue, 08, 20

A surge is evident in domestic violence during the pandemic. Experts suggest how this can be countered.

Stuck in your house for months, with minimal or no outside interaction with other humans except via phone or online. The only people you are spending more time with than ever before is your family. Sounds familiar? For some, it may even sound comforting, as home is where one feels safest. But women who are stuck at home with an abusive family member or partner during the pandemic are not safe at home either.

When it comes to the issues humanity is facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the loudest voices and most glaring headlines are centered on the public health crisis, crumbling economies, and job loss. What is often ignored, and not fully understood, are the implications of this crisis on vulnerable communities; one of these is women, and one of the problems women are facing more than ever during the pandemic is gender-based violence, in their homes or outside.

Pakistan saw its first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 on 26th February, 2020. In a video message in the month of April, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had warned the world of a ‘horrifying global surge’ in domestic violence during the coronavirus pandemic, saying that “We know lockdowns and quarantines are essential to suppressing Covid-19. But they can trap women with abusive partners.”

As stated in a policy brief by the Ministry for Human Rights, Government of Pakistan, titled “Gendered Impact and Implications of COVID-19 in Pakistan,” evidence suggests that epidemics and stresses involved in coping with the epidemics may increase the risk of domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV). Studies have also found that unemployment tends to increase the risk of depression, aggression and episodes of violent behavior in men. “Hence, the country may experience a rise in cases of domestic abuse as a result of COVID-19. Given the current climate of decreased economic activities, financial uncertainties and a situation of lockdown being faced in Pakistan, heightened tensions could translate into women facing more vulnerabilities,” states the brief.

Why is it happening?

The fears have come true. “There is an increasing global evidence that rates of GBV have increased under lockdown,” says Ayesha Khan, author of ‘The Women’s Movement in Pakistan: Activism, Islam and Democracy’, adding that women stuck at home with abusers who are getting increasingly frustrated by the impact of the pandemic, both economically and psychologically, have nowhere to go.

The psychological factors seem to be the main reason in this rise. “Men as primary earners in many families are feeling the financial pressure and stress more. For many, social distancing has also meant a drastic change in routine because of limited work and socialising, which causes a build-up of stress. For some, the stress is related to constant fear of exposure to COVID-19 because of work or because men tend to do a lot of outdoor work. Sometimes stress manifests as physical symptoms,” says Clinical Psychologist Dr Asha Bedar who has worked in disaster situations, including the COVID-19 crisis. She shares that she has more men presenting issues such as chest pains, breathing trouble and issues sleeping. Men also tend to externalise a lot of their stress through irritability and aggression which can spill into violence at times. The brunt of this pent up stress is faced by the females in the family, mostly the wife.

As Dr Bedar explains, women during the lockdown have had to disproportionately bear a triple burden of work: increased household work with everyone at home, increased and constant caretaking responsibilities (including coronavirus patients), and home schooling of children (including learning and managing new technology). Working women face an additional juggling responsibilities. “Both physical fatigue and mental stress are being reported more. Constant interaction and demands often mean more conflict at home, and can contribute to more depressive symptoms and anxiety. Many women report being left with no time for themselves. Channels for stress relief through breaks, socialising, and other away-from-home activities like office work, shopping, visiting family, socialising with neighbours, friends, or attending classes etc., have also become limited, increasing their levels of stress and anxiety. Irritability, anger, anxiety and depressive symptoms are all emerging more,” she says. This constant friction between stressed spouses means they have less emotional threshold and patience, especially the men. The result is an increase in domestic violence.

According to a UNODC report titled ‘Gender and Pandemic – URGENT CALL FOR ACTION’ advocacy brief, 90% of women in Pakistan have experienced some form of domestic violence, at the hands of their husbands or families. 47% of married women have experienced sexual abuse, particularly domestic rape. Most common forms of abuse, according to the report, are Shouting or yelling (76%), Slapping (52%), Threatening (49%), Pushing (47%), Punching (40%), and Kicking (40%).

“Most Pakistanis have been hit hard socially and economically by the pandemic, but the impact has been different on women and children who have been historically marginalised and prone to be victims of aggression. Covid-19 and its consequences have placed the already vulnerable women in a graver situation due to the triggers for abuse induced by the stress and financial problems coupled with confinement in the home caused by lockdowns,” says Fauzia Viqar, Chief Executive of Rah Centre for Management and Development, a rights advocacy organisation. She confirms that domestic violence has increased and is being reported in larger numbers across the world, including Pakistan. According to her, the recent numbers shared by the helpline of Ministry of Human Rights prove a rise in domestic violence since the lockdowns in Pakistan.

When asked about the reasons leading to this surge, Dr Tabinda Sarosh, Pathfinder’s country director in Pakistan, says that it is due to “lack of mobility and isolation at home, widespread unidentified and unrecognised mental issues combined with pre-existing high incidence of VAWG (violence against women and girls). Global data shows that incidence of DV and VAWG always rises in crises situations and often goes unreported.”

The broader description of violence, according to Dr Shama Dossa, a community development practitioner, researcher and academic, includes psychological violence and deprivation. “The impact of job loss and lack of mobility is more on women. Women are more burdened with household work during the pandemic. The lesser educated the perpetrator, the more the violence,” she says.

According to a UNODC report titled ‘Gender and Pandemic – URGENT CALL FOR ACTION’ advocacy brief, 90% of women in Pakistan have experienced some form of domestic violence, at the hands of their husbands or families. 47% of married women have experienced sexual abuse, particularly domestic rape.

The reporting of DV in Pakistan is not easy because of multiple factors, and women are scared to report due to social taboo. According to the aforementioned UNODC report, only 0.4% of women take their cases to courts. 50% of women who experience domestic violence do not respond in any way and suffer silently. Usually domestic violence is underreported; women stay in abusive and violent marriages till the stage comes when divorce becomes inevitable.

“Generally, help-seeking behaviour is missing. Anecdotally, police officers say that they succeed in convincing the woman to make up and go back home to the husband without registering an FIR,” says Dr Dossa, adding that the reporting process should be set up in a way that women feel more comfortable to report. A big consideration is that if a woman leaves her house after suffering from DV, where is she to go? “In the province of Sindh, there are some functional safe houses at the district level where complainant can stay for a few days.”

Working towards a solution

Experts feel that while the situation is difficult, the way forward for mitigating domestic violence, particularly in the pandemic, requires multi-pronged approaches.

“Domestic violence can be addressed at different levels, such as raising awareness among women and young people, and providing info on coping and safety, as well as setting up and disseminating info on professional crisis helplines with trained counsellors and lawyers. Also to be included in the strategy should be developing SOPs for the police for handling DV especially during COVID-19, setting up safe (including COVID-19 safe) spaces for women and children, strong support from the Government on a no-tolerance approach for violence, creating awareness on anger and stress management for men, and legal awareness,” suggests Dr Bedar.

The support needed is not just logistic and legal, but also emotional, and all these aspects need consideration. Ayesha Khan shares that in Pakistan, civil society groups have helped to set up new helplines to support women needing help from abusive partners, and cites examples. “Rozan has set up a dedicated national helpline under COVID-19 which gives psycho-social support. ShirkatGah is helping the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women prepare a gender response to Covid-19 pandemic, in which GBV and DV are key areas of concern.”

Dr Dossa is of the opinion that the answer lies in a multi-sectoral collaboration which is needed to counter the menace of DV and GBV, which means that the police, the social welfare department, the women’s development department, the population planning department, all work in consortium. As the main systems provider is the Government, this is what is needed.

The aforementioned policy brief informs us that Pakistan’s Federal Ministry of Human Rights has taken an affirmative step through issuing a COVID-19 Alert that provides a helpline 1099 and a WhatsApp number 0333 908 5709 to report cases of domestic violence during the lockdown.

Dr Sarosh feels that healthcare providers like Lady Health Workers (LHWs) or Lady Health Visitors (LHVs) can also be part of the solution “Under ‘NayaQadam’, for the first time in Pakistan, healthcare providers trained on Family Planning are now being trained on GBV services to become first point contacts for the survivors. This would allow women to seek survivor-centred services in full confidential and private settings, receive basic aid, and high-quality referrals to shelter homes, security services, legal recourses, and of course health responses.” NayaQadam is a project led by Pathfinder International with five partners aimed at high-quality FP programming. While this is a feasible solution, the safety of female healthcare providers is also a matter of concern, more so during the pandemic – safety against any kind of violence and exposure to the coronavirus is something that would need to be looked at carefully when they are out in the field or working from makeshift clinics in their homes.

Women have been excluded from most decision making forums on COVID-19, as well as response and relief related groups. According to Fauzia Viqar, National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) and other high level platforms are cases in point. Absence of the female voice in decision-making for meeting the challenges posed by the pandemic marginalises issues of women, including increase in their care giving role, DV and issues of access to information among others. She adds that COVID-induced restrictions on OPDs and transportation have increased women’s challenges, especially of reproductive health, which is already low in priority. “We need to ensure there is no disruption in services to victims of domestic violence such as helplines, shelters and OPDs,” concludes Viqar.

The writer is a freelance journalist with a focus on human rights, education, health, and literature. She also works as a Communications Practitioner and Media Trainer.

The women of substance from DIRILIS ERTUGRUL

Tue, 07, 20

Here, You! celebrates the inimitable female characters of one of the world’s most popular contemporary television series.

Women who take over the reins of the tribe. Women who are so much more than ceremonial First Ladies. Women who are warriors, doctors, community leaders, members of the government, treasurers, and secret-keepers. Viewers are initially agape at the marvel of the male characters of the Turkish series ‘Dirilis: Ertugrul’ as warriors with hearts of gold and unshakable faith. But scratch the surface, and it is the female characters of the show that are the real stars. These female characters are strong, individualistic, and never overshadowed by their male counterparts.

The show’s characters have been penned and performed in a way that they become real to the viewers. Since this show came to homes across the globe via Netflix, and recently when PTV started airing the Urdu dubbed version of the mega hit series in Ramazan 2020, much has been discussed about Ertugrul Ghazi and his alps. Here, You! celebrates the inimitable female characters of one of the world’s most popular contemporary television series.

Hayme Ana – Of motherhood and leadership:

Her face is tender and expressive. For her children and grandchildren, she is loving and doting beyond belief, her words are always laced with ‘Ana qurban’ (may I, the mother, be sacrificed over you). She is the caring and affectionate wife for Suleyman Shah, who takes over as his successor as head of the tribe, that too in the 13th century. She is a mother figure to many who lost their mothers, including her husband’s nieces Seljan and Gokche, and to Ertugrul’s alps (his chosen military commanders and friends). But the character is much more than just a wife or a mother, and it would not be wrong to say that Hayme Ana is almost the matriarch of the Kayi tribe. She sets the bar, for the women who follow her very high. She has political acumen, is part of important meetings in the tribe, takes the lead in times of war and migration, and continues to support the tribal heads – her husband or son – as the second in command. From the body language to the choice in words to her actions, Hayme Ana is a woman of substance, and continues to be so through all five seasons of the show.

Halime Sultan – The real strength of Ertugrul:

Her entry in the show is as a displaced princess, saved by the incredibly brave and chivalrous Ertugrul. But make no mistake, it is she who saves Ertugrul many a time from the depths of despair by being his inspiration and strongest support system. Halime Sultan, the stunningly beautiful female protagonist of the show, is more than just a pretty face. She has a strong sixth sense and is a good judge of people, often better than her male counterpart. Halime, her mother-in-law Hayme Ana, and all leading ladies of the Kayi tribe, can afford servants, but instead of relying on ladies in waiting, these are hands on women who like to stay physically strong by working hard, whether it is by weaving carpets that is a major source of income for the tribe, or lovingly cooking for their families. This aspect is particularly marked in the case of Halime, as she is originally a Seljuk princess, but her life takes a 360 degrees turn as she becomes Ertugrul’s wife, and in time the first lady of a nomadic Turk warrior tribe. She is simultaneously the coy bashful love interest of her man, but equally at ease riding on her horse’s back or fighting men with swords to protect herself. As the First Lady of the tribe, her role is so strong in terms of leadership, and taking care of tough tasks like ration distribution and nursing the injured, that it makes one wonder what happened to first ladies in the 21st century who are merely complementing the male leaders as subservient eye candy.

Seljan Hatun – The surprise package:

Love her or hate her, but you cannot ignore her. If there is one female character that continues to keep the viewers on tenterhooks of suspense, it is Seljan Hatun. The character is so layered that each one of us can relate to it at some point. From antagonist to someone who has the capability to repent sincerely and turn around, Seljan is an unforgettable character. Her husband, the often naive Gundogdu, is led into many a trial due to her whims and schemes. But the character has a God-gifted strong intuition, and she progressively uses this gift for the larger benefit of her tribe. She has a no-nonsense attitude and is painfully persistent, and while both qualities have their cons, the pros outweigh them. She wants to keep the family intact, and is fiercely sincere to her tribe.

Aykiz and Aslihan – With Turgut as the common thread:

Aykiz is Turgut Alp’s first and only real love. Aslihan Hatun is his last love. To be the female counterpart of a man as strong in every way as Turgut Alp, it is a given that both these women are equally powerful. Aykiz, the keen-eyed archer, is not afraid to shoot an arrow at the enemy. Aslihan, as the head of the difficult Javdar tribe, is fearless with her sword, and unafraid to stand up to the enemy for truth and justice. Aslihan faces unprecedented challenges in the shape of Emir Sadettin Köpek who falls in love with her – a love that is both destructive and evil. The strength of character that she shows in facing him leaves a deep impact on the viewer.

Ilibilge Hatun – A stickler for justice:

She joins the show in its twilight, but has an indelible impression. With his heart already taken by the love of his life, our hero Ertugrul is very clear that the woman he now chooses to stand beside him as his life partner would have to be a woman who shares his life ideology of striving for truth and justice, and is someone who can sustain the pressures of being the wife of Ertugrul. Ilibilge fits each requirement. She is willing to sacrifice her personal dreams, her blood relationships, and even her life, for the causes she believes in.

Women of substance in smaller roles:

The smart, scheming and clever antagonists like Aytolun Hatun, Mahperi Hatun, Goncagül Hatun, and Sirma Hatun, are all layered characters that have shades of gray in them. But the ones to be celebrated are some other women in smaller roles that make one marvel at the prowess of the goodness in women. Etched in every viewer’s memory is Sügay Hatun, a woman who has lost her own child, and little Osman’s survival depends on her. The immense potential to share love with a motherless child shown by this widow who takes a stand against her oppressive in-laws is memorable. But perhaps most significant was a character from the last season – season 5 – an unnamed old woman, a poverty-stricken woman who has lost her family, is just left with small grandchildren, but opens the doors of her home to a stranger in need – a pregnant woman. The generosity, contentment, self-respect and gratitude embodied by that character makes one look inward and think what actually makes someone a woman of substance.

How is coronavirus affecting family planning efforts in Pakistan

Obstacles to family planning

July 12, 2020

On World Population Day, a look at how the pandemic is affecting family planning efforts in Pakistan, where the healthcare system is already buckling under pressure

Photo courtesy: UNICEF

For Nusrat Bibi, short-term contraception methods had been the preferred choice, which she used to get from the healthcare centre near her village close to Renala Khurd in the Punjab. But as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the resulting overload of information, misinformation and conspiracy theories made her choice difficult. “People say that if we go to hospitals, doctors will inject us with coronavirus. Also, I cannot go repeatedly to get condoms or pills. My only option now is to go for a method that provides me protection for a longer period,” says the 33-years old mother of six. She turned to Abeeda Shehbaz, a community midwife (CMW) in her neighbourhood, who has set up a makeshift clinic at her home as women in the village are now unable to go out for their medical needs, due to fear of contracting the virus and also due to a lack of mobility and finances. Nusrat now has a contraceptive implant that is placed under her skin in the upper arm, releasing the hormone progesterone into the blood stream, and providing safe prevention of pregnancy for the next three years.

While the pandemic has affected every aspect of healthcare ecosystems globally, it is relevant to observe on World Population Day how it is affecting family planning (FP) efforts, particularly in populous nations where the healthcare systems are already buckling under pressure. Population experts predict that by 2030, Pakistan’s population will swell up to 245 million, making it the fourth most populous nation in the world. According to the latest Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) only 34 percent of currently married women are using a contraceptive method. In the year 2019 the modern contraception prevalence rate (mCPR) in Pakistan was recorded to be just 17.7 percent, according to FP2020. It is estimated that some 3,522,000 unintended pregnancies, 1,409,700 unsafe abortions, and 3,830 maternal deaths were averted due to this mCPR. A 1.5 percent decline in the number of women using modern contraceptives during Covid-19 may negatively impact some 1,263,000 women.

Dr Azra Ahsan, a gynecologist and obstetrician with a special focus on family planning and maternal health, confirms that women are avoiding visiting healthcare facilities and hospitals for deliveries or FP as they are scared of contracting Covid. “Many helplines have emerged as there are very few patients coming to outpatient departments (OPDs). This also might be due to lockdown and lack of public transport,” she says. With less than usual women coming to hospitals for deliveries, the opportunity of post-partum family planning (PPFP) is also lost.

“It is true that due to the pandemic, all healthcare facilities have been impacted adversely, including antenatal, postnatal, and FP initiatives,” says Dr Muhammad Imran, the Okara district coordinator for the Government of Punjab’s Integrated Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn & Child Health and Nutrition Programme (IRMNCHNP). Not just FP, even the nutritional status of would-be or new mothers has suffered due to the financial crunch people are going though, adds Dr Imran.

This is why the work of lady health workers (LHWs) and CMWs like Abeeda is critical. To tackle this challenge, government departments and organisations are going the extra mile and providing special trainings to them. “We are training LHWs and concerned healthcare persons about the SOPs regarding how to stay safe themselves, create awareness among communities, and simultaneously ensure continuity of activities related to FP and maternal health,” says Dr Imran.

“Now we mostly counsel them or follow up on their progress via phone or WhatsApp messages. If someone is in need of an examination physically or needs to have a procedure done, we call them to the small facilities in our homes,” says Abeeda, a Lady Health Worker (LHW).

According to Abeeda, service providers like her were initially confused, as a lot of their work is centred on one-on-one counselling as well as conducting awareness sessions in communities. “However, virtual training by Naya Qadam helped us, as did the personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, protective gear and sanitisers they provided to us. Now we mostly counsel them or follow up on their progress via phone or WhatsApp messages. If someone is in need of an examination physically or needs to have a procedure done, we call them to the small facilities in our homes,” says Abeeda. Naya Qadam is a project led by Pathfinder International with five partners aimed at high-quality FP programming, working in three districts of the Punjab and seven districts of Sindh. During the pandemic, organisations like these, working hand in hand with the government, are critical.

One of the concerns is the protection and safety of the healthcare staff. This, along with addressing the fast-growing stigma around Covid-19, is a key challenge, according to Dr Tabinda Sarosh, Pathfinder’s country director in Pakistan. “Communities might lose faith in health facilities and are afraid that they might end up acquiring the infection from the facility. Providers are also in a state of insecurity, as well as inundated with work. This is bound to reflect on the quality of their work, and also take away time and energies from FP counselling and services,” she says, adding that FP services are still not declared as essential health services by the provincial governments. “A policy-level assertion is much needed to motivate and set up compliance frameworks for the time to come. While some FP-RH Covid-19 framework has been developed by the governments, implementation and monitoring is a long way to go,” she says.

Another obstacle is that supply of commodities essential for continuity of FP services has been hampered due to the pandemic. “Our biggest problem is the shortage of medicines and products we need for FP,” says Haseena Soomro, a lady health supervisor (LHS) from Shaikh Zaid Colony, Larkana. “Our work has decreased by 50 percent due to this pandemic. I have to convince both LHWs and the communities that if the SOPs are in place, we can still do the needful.”

Dr Sarosh echoes the concern, saying that long acting methods that women were using could soon go out of stock if expedited procurement plans are not put in place. For this, her organisation, along with the public sector, has expedited the response for commodity security to ensure continuity in FP services in the areas where they work.

Judging by the importance of LHWs and CMWs in this scenario, the need of the hour is a gender-equitable response to Covid-19, especially in the sphere of FP. As Dr Sarosh says, “Women, as it is, are a marginalised community in Pakistan, and FP as per DHS is in a stagnant state. Add to that the emergence of the pandemic and the disruption of services. This scenario calls for ensuring that women are at the centre of the policies that are being developed or implemented and their growing needs need to be responded to.”

The writer is a freelance journalist with a focus on human rights, gender and peace-building. She works in the field of Corporate Communications­

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The case of female home-based workers during COVID-19

June 14, 2020

Perhaps the worst-hit during the lockdown are workers in the informal sector. Among them, the women have taken a harder financial blow even than the men

For Farhana Naz, the biggest worry right now is that monsoon rains will start in July, and the roof of her house drips, but she has no money to buy her medicines, leave alone get her roof repaired. “I am a widow with one daughter, the sole bread-winner of my family. Apart from some philanthropists who gave us ration, I have no one to look towards for help,” says Naz, a home-based worker (HBW) from a shanty neighbourhood in Orangi Town, Karachi. Women in her area, she says, are not just unemployed but also too scared to step out of the house even to go to the doctor or a hospital if they are sick. “Coronavirus is a disaster; it has spread in my area. We have no food, no money and no work is coming our way,” she says. “We are waiting for all this to be over”.

In wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pakistan’s economy has suffered badly. The lockdown has disproportionately affected Pakistan’s small-wage earners. Out of them, workers in the informal sector are perhaps the worst hit. Among them, the women have taken a harder financial blow even than the men.

According to Iftikhar Ahmad, a comparative labour law expert and founder of the Centre for Labour Research, the total employed labour force in Pakistan is 62 million of which 24 million are in agriculture while 38 million are working in the non-agriculture sector. “The informal sector includes those enterprises which do not fall under the jurisdiction of labour law. Combine the informal sector (27 million) with the agriculture sector (24 million) and you get the ‘unprotected sector’ (51 million),” he says. The unprotected sector consists of all workers who do not enjoy the protection of labour law and where workers are not registered with the social protection institutions,” says Ahmed, adding that data regarding HBWs is based on International Labour Organization (ILO) reports which mention the number of HBW in Pakistan to be around 12 million.

“Pakistan’s informal economy comprises 74 percent of it, with a majority of women working invisibly as home workers, domestic workers, contract workers in factories, and labour in rural economy,” says Ume Laila Azhar, executive director of Homenet Pakistan, a network of organizations formed to raise awareness about the working conditions of female HBWs. Azhar adds that HBWs who are subcontracted by national and international supply chains report that they have not received orders for work or regular orders have not been renewed for months since the onset of Covid-19.

Four months ago, Fozia Bibi and the 80 other women from her neighbourhood she is a community leader for, were working and supporting their families. Post-Covid-19 and lockdown, there is no work, and no earning for the 80 households from Baldia Town, Saeedabad, in Karachi. From earning Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 ($90- $120) a month, Bibi, a single mother supporting her three children, is now earning nothing. “I had a routine. I had a life. The lockdown and coronavirus changed everything,” says Bibi who made a living by doing miscellaneous work for garment factories.

With the wages of HBWs having dwindled, their dependents too are suffering. “In my area, almost all women are working to support their families. Some are widowed or divorced. Others have husbands who cannot work because of illnesses. Many have husbands who are drug addicts. All these families are affected in a way we could not have imagined,” she says.

“Developing countries may not have the budget or the resources to afford balloon payment to workers of the informal economy. The workers themselves don’t have enough money to prepare for crisis either.”

“While male workers could still make it to the limited work opportunities, it was impossible for female workers to leave home because of closure of transport. During the lock down, some employers were operating secretly. Male workers were preferred on account of better mobility. There is also pressure on female workers from their families to not go out in situations of crisis,” says Zulfiqar Shah, the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) joint director, adding that because of disruptions in supply chains, work opportunities of HBWs have declined.

“Even when females are working with formal sector enterprises, they are working mostly without appointment letters or formal employment contractors. Hence, they were the first victims,” says Ahmad.

Azhar says that female workers from all sectors in the informal economy have been affected. Giving the example of the garment and textile sector in Karachi, she says that the industry and local markets are closed, the consumers are opting for just basic utilities instead of purchasing clothes, and the international market demand has declined. “In Pakistan where millions of women do piecework for national and international brands, work began to fall off in February as fears of the virus spread. Since many of the raw materials these workers rely on come from other countries, they were unable to get supplies early on in the global crisis or had to pay more for inputs. This affected those who produced garments as well as those who assembled electronics, games and other products,” says Azhar. Many HBWs were unable to stock raw materials before lockdowns began. “They might not have had time, storage space, or available cash to do so. This prevented them from using this time in isolation to amass products that they might sell once the lockdown was over.”

Relying mostly on philanthropists for rations that would help them get by these very lean months, some of them tried their hand at self-help. As a community leader, Fozia Bibi had introduced the idea of putting in some spare money in what can be called a collective community fund, for rainy days. Even if very small amounts were added, the savings helped this group of women buy rations for those in dire need for the initial weeks of the lockdown. But now all petty savings have run dry.

“The informal economy is particularly strong in developing countries,” Ndaya Beltchika, Lead Technical Specialist, Gender and Social Inclusion for IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development), said recently while addressing journalists from various countries. “Developing countries may not have the budget or the resources to afford balloon payment to workers of the informal economy. The workers themselves don’t have enough money to prepare for crisis either.” Beltchika suggested that the governments could repurpose some investments in order to come up with plans that can at least provide basic necessities to these vulnerable citizens.

“There should be an unemployment fund for women who have lost jobs. They should be paid from this fund till normalcy returns,” suggests Shah.

The solution, according to Ahmad, is making social protection a fundamental right. “The state can initiate contributory social protection schemes for all workers, irrespective of their employment status or type of sector they are engaged in (formal or informal),” he says, adding that provision of social protection, especially when it is financed by contributions by the beneficiaries in the form of premiums, is not that costly since not everyone is accessing benefits at the same moment. “Covid-19 is an extraordinary situation and drained resources from even the best-funded social protection systems. Therefore, it depends more on the will of the state rather than on financial resources.”