By Farahnaz Zahidi
Originally published in The News on Sunday
Samina Ahmed is emancipated, opinionated, a trail-blazing female actor who embarked on her acting career when the realm of acting was highly male-dominated; the first woman (particularly in Punjab) to have started her own television production house, a serious performer who dared to venture into comedy to challenge stereotypes. And, most importantly, a proponent of and activist of rights for women.
Nothing synthetic about this woman of substance. She is who she is.
A whole lot of carefully thought and some not so carefully thought, extempore questions followed with an equal amount of succinct and poignant answers — about media, drama, acting and especially about the women of Pakistan.
The News on Sunday: As a female actor in a male dominated field of work, what has the journey been like for you?
Samina Ahmed: Initially, it was not easy for me. But over the years, I have to say it has become easier, partly because I have carved a place for myself and am an established actor now.
More importantly, I think social attitudes are changing. Today, men have the heart to take orders from a female colleague if they are working under her. Back then, it was not so. I worked at Lahore’s Alhamra for about 20 years, and I remember that one had to face resistance even from stage hands, carpenters and helpers, let alone co-actors and co-workers. I would have to work doubly hard to prove my mettle as a female, and for them to take me more seriously. At times, I felt they were waiting for me to fail. But over the years, things have changed.
TNS: And, how have things changed for women in the media?
SA: When we talk of media, particularly television, we are basically talking of two sub-divisions — there is news and current affairs and then there is the entertainment side of it. And, I feel women have managed to carve a place for themselves in both areas. A lot many women are hosts and anchors of political talk shows and morning shows. They are producers and directors. When we look at entertainment, a lot more roles are being written for female actors than ever before. On an average, if we have 10 channels in the country that are airing 4 dramas a day, may they be comedy or serious, we have about 40 being aired daily!
When the volume of work has gone up, so have co-incidentally opportunities for female actors. They are behind the camera and in front of it as well. It is still a young industry, but things are looking up for women in the media and for Pakistani women in general.
TNS: You were associated with the more potent phase of the women’s rights movement in the 1980s. What do you think it has achieved? How do you see the status of Pakistani women now?
SA: That phase of the women’s rights movement was so potent because it immediately followed an era of severe repression. We were extremely charged up, the women activists that is, following the oppression of women as an aftermath of the Hudood Odinance. Over the years, the work done for women rights has progressed. So many non-government organisations and activists are in the field and working on many issues. To me it seems things are looking better. While legislations may not wave magic wands, we at least have progressed to a point where there are bills and legislations for victims of domestic violence, harassment, honour killings etc. It’s a step forward for sure.
TNS: How was your experience as the first woman to have your own production house in Pakistan?
SA: I believe Sultana Siddiqui started her own at around the same time, but yes, I was definitely the first one in Punjab. The experience was not smooth all the way and it had its risks like anything new one does in life. But in life, nothing’s easy. So I took the challenges in my stride and enjoyed the experience. It gave me a free hand to do the kind of roles I wanted to. If you remember, in Family Front, people saw me and Saba Hameed doing comedy, though we were recognised as serious actors. And, that was not a random decision. It was a product of deliberation, because I wanted to create chances of diversified roles for women. Comedy remains a focal interest for me.
TNS: Are you satisfied with the portrayal of women in media?
SA: People complain that drama today shows women only in melodramatic, weepy kind of roles. But I don’t worry over this. I think this is natural progression and over time female actors will find themselves getting diversified roles outside of the box.
As I said they have a lot more opportunities now compared to earlier decades.
TNS: So as an industry, would you call media women-friendly?
SA: It is not women-unfriendly, but television production as a business is still very male dominated. The United Producers Association still has just a sprinkling of female producers, which means major decision making and power still rests with the men. But we still have a Sultana Siddqui and a Seema Taher Khan in positions of control, which is positive.
TNS: Any parting thoughts — hopes and dreams, especially for women?
SA: I hope to see the television industry grow further and wish to see the progress of Pakistani theatre and film industry. I am lucky that I still enjoy what I do. I want the same for other actors, especially female actors, because they are sidelined at times and come with a lot of baggage. My hope is that the baggage of being a woman doesn’t pull them back from reaching the top.