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Poverty is sexist

The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

If you are a woman and you have an education, you are either from a privileged background or are simply lucky. There are 796 million illiterate people on this earth; women comprise two-thirds of them. Each year a girl spends in school can boost her future income by 10-20 per cent. A lack of education, in turn, will translate into lesser economic empowerment.

Let’s get specific. If the women of the world had primary education, there would be 15 per cent fewer child deaths, saving 900,000 lives a year on the planet. Excitingly, if all women had secondary education, child deaths could be reduced by 49 per cent, saving 2.8 million lives. There would be 64 per cent fewer early marriages and 59 per cent fewer early-age pregnancies. But poverty is relentless, especially when it comes to women. Some 800 women die every day the world over from complications in pregnancy or childbirth. In the absence of any reliable data, experts estimate that Pakistan loses 30,000 women every year under the title of maternal mortality.

Rightly considered the most vulnerable community, women, along with their children, suffer most at the hands of conflict, natural disasters, and especially, poverty. Much more than their male counterparts. Even if statistics are to be left aside, a few facts are obvious. From the son being preferred when parents decide which child to send to school to who gets the better piece of meat at dinner, the disparity among the underprivileged strata in Pakistan is obvious. Women, though they carry out strenuous work and bear children, are neglected even in terms of their nutritional requirements being met. A big percentage of our population is unregistered and has no CNICs, the number of females with identity cards is even fewer. This is indicative of a clear social tilt. In the absence of the CNIC, these women have little hope of attaining higher education, being owners of property, having a bank account, or even having a personal mobile phone and access to digital technology. Illiteracy and poverty go hand in hand, and a lack of education breeds a culture of violence against women.

Statistics, however, cannot be left aside. Talking of gender inequality, poverty definitely has a woman’s face. Women, on an average, get 40 per cent less salary at workplaces in the Saarc region than their male colleagues. Pakistan, a developing country of the region, is not among the 48 least developed countries in the world. Yet, Pakistan’s performance in terms of the Gender Inequality Index (GII) is one of the worst. Pakistan has a GII value of 0.563, slipping down to 126th out of 149 countries in the 2013 index. According to an Oxfam study titled ‘Multiple Inequalities and Policies to Mitigate Inequality Traps in Pakistan (March 2015)’, Pakistan ranks last in women participation in the workforce among the Saarc countries. They comprise 42 per cent of the total family labour but are mostly unacknowledged.

While travelling through Pakistan by road, more women can be seen working in fields than men. However, 80 per cent of these women are given no more status but being regarded as unpaid family workers. They work in the fields all their lives, yet own less than three per cent of the land. If the world provides female farmers with the same access to productive resources as male farmers and closes the gender gap in agriculture, it could increase agricultural yields by 20-30 per cent, raise economic output by 2.5-4 per cent, and reduce the number of people who go hungry by 12-17 per cent globally. The world, by recognising the contribution of women and providing them the same opportunities in the agricultural field, could reduce the number of people living in chronic hunger by 100-150 million the world over, says research by ONE, an international campaigning and advocacy organisation, spearheading the “Poverty is Sexist” campaign. The burden of poverty is heavy enough on entire families. Yet women, wrongly called the weaker sex, end up carrying a bigger burden of poverty than the men. The burden must be shared to provide holistic relief to communities globally.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 29th,  2015.


8 Pakistani women you should follow on Twitter

Published: May 19, 2015


Though expansive in its content, a recently combined list of Twitter accounts belonging to Muslim women from around the world lacked representation from Pakistan.

Here at The Express Tribune, we compiled our own list of 8 Pakistani women that we believe you must follow. Our list consists of Pakistani women from all walks of life: journalists, activists, academics, actors and authors. Following these women is a must for those looking to gain an added perspective to the rather male-dominated public opinion.

1. @MehreenKasana


Her bio is three words long: one woman army. And that is precisely what Mehreen Kasana is. Not only is she one of Pakistan’s top bloggers, but it is her unique take on things that makes her a top choice for our list. She is an activist and a progressive, through and through. She speaks loudly and bravely against racism and Islamophobia and truly thinks outside the box. Mehreen is one of those who build bridges between extremes.

2. @SanaSaleem


Though Sana is widely known as a rights activist, her humour and her anecdotes with her Daadi are worth a read. Director of “Bolo Bhi”, Sana is a fearless voice against state censorship, and an expert in digital rights and security. She says what she has to by cloaking it in biting wit.

3. @SheikhImaan


With the wittiest sense of humour, hands down, Imaan is an entertainer and wins over tweeps with her charm. Agree with her or not, you cannot ignore her. Reading any tweet by the Buzzfeed author is either time well spent or time well wasted.

4. @SamarMinallahKh


She makes us proud simply with all the good work she does. Anthropologist and documentary film-maker, Samar’s work for women’s rights, especially child marriage, has changed many lives for the better. Her roots are firmly planted in indigenous sensibilities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa from where she hails, and her work is thus respected both locally and globally.

5. @Mehreen Zahra-Malik


The Reuters correspondent for Pakistan is a great source for the latest rumblings in Islamabad. She might get a few details wrong here and there, but for the most part Malik tackles stories that local media can’t or won’t.

6. @Zofeen28


As one of Pakistan’s most respected feature writers and journalists, she brings to the fore issues that need to be highlighted. If you want to read human interest stories, this is the account to follow.

7. @NJLahori


Nadia Jamil, darling of the people, is as popular on Twitter as she is otherwise. The activist-actor, and self-claimed foodie, brings to you the much-needed zest of Lahore.

8. @RafiaZakaria


Attorney, political philosopher and the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, Ms Zakaria is popular not without reason. She gives a less myopic and more global picture of issues that face present day Pakistan and the world.


Nandita Das – The real thing in a virtual world

Nandita Das on being comfortable in her own skin

Published: March 29, 2015
Nandita believes youngsters shouldn’t bother about thinking where they fit in the social hierarchy. PHOTO: VIDHI THAKUR

Nandita believes youngsters shouldn’t bother about thinking where they fit in the social hierarchy. PHOTO: VIDHI THAKUR

LAHORE: “I never bleach my face,” says Nandita Das. Stunningly beautiful in a plain gray kurta, here is a woman whose description always has prefixes and suffixes like ‘dark and dusky’ or ‘earthy’ in write-ups about her. But Nandita is more than these qualifications.

We are sitting in Lahore on a chilly March morning in the home of Nuzhat Manto, Saadat Hasan Manto’s daughter, where Nandita is a house guest. She sips healthy green tea and nibbles on unhealthy mithaai. All she needs is a subtle cue and starts to talk, because Nandita has a lot to say. She feels talking about herself, “is corroding” to the self, but admits that this is an occupational hazard and hence, agreed to do this interview.

“I don’t even get a facial more than once a year. My mother never got her face bleached. She is 72 and has great skin. I stay away from artificial things,” she says, and shares that she has had emails from young girls wanting to commit suicide because they were unable to be fair, because they were disappointing their parents, because they would never find the right husband. “I internalise all this so much that I feel I must correct this, so I do the exact opposite. I almost asexualise myself… one reason why I have always worn dheela (loose) kurtas.”

As perhaps the most popular face of the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign, she condemns the ‘gora complex’. “The big companies are cashing on this prejudice. It is not a standalone issue. I grew up as a dark person in a country like India. In the film industry, the few dark actresses we had have also progressively become fairer, like Rekha and Kajol. We take on the burden of looking good all the time. We, women, objectify ourselves. If we all look like Barbie dolls, how uninteresting the world would be. I see young girls who have completely lost their sense of self-worth because they are trying to fit into that standardised notion of beauty. Can you imagine the struggle? They spend all that time doing that instead of discovering their talent or being happy.”

The actor is considered, by many, one of the most attractive women of Indian cinema. “But that’s all about perception. Some might say ‘she is so dark’! There is always a hierarchy in things. Some people will be above you, others below you. If I waste my time thinking where I fit in that hierarchy of things…There’s so much to do. Travel. Eat good food. Meet interesting people,” she says, and adds that people label her as being “attractive to the intelligent man”.

“There’s a word for people who find intelligent people attractive… yes… sapiosexual. If at all somebody finds me attractive, I hope it is not just for what I look like because there is more to all of us.” Yet, Nandita does not like looking unkempt.  “Without Kajal I feel dead. But if there are 10 things I want to do today, looking good is the 11th thing, “says the actor who doesn’t carry cosmetics in her handbag and has no issues announcing that she is 45.

Actor, director, social activist, writer, wife and mother of a four-and-a-half year old boy, she juggles many roles. She is faced with the dilemma of every working woman who is a mother. “But at the same time, your work gives you a sense of purpose in life. If I’m not a happy person I will not be a happy mother. Once a woman has worked and tasted that freedom, she cannot be bound.”

When asked if she sees herself as the real thing in a world where so much is artificial, she says, “you don’t want to be so indulgent that you are constantly seeing yourself when there’s so much else to see. The film world can make you take yourself too seriously because you get too much attention too quickly; you start believing in the myth that you are important”.

Nandita never wanted to be an actor originally. “I thought it was a powerful medium to say the things that I wanted to say, just like the writing and speaking engagements I do”. All these mediums are means to an end for her, which is advocacy. “You meet people who are doing amazing work with no media light on them. It’s a tough life but that’s the life they have chosen and if given a chance would lead it all over again. When you admire people who are fighting for all of us, how can take yourself seriously just because people recognise you?”

Born in Mumbai, and raised in Delhi, Nandita relates more to Delhi as she feels it is a more culturally and politically engaged city. “The people of Delhi, however, are more aggressive and don’t have so much of work ethic. I’m sure the comparison reminds one of Lahore and Karachi. Delhi is also not as women-friendly and safe. Mumbai is very cosmopolitan. Delhi is more patriarchal.”

Her parents have been a very important influence in her life. “I owe a lot to my parents. My father is a painter; my mother is a writer. I grew up among writers, painters, photographers, musicians, theatre people. My parents have been extremely inclusive with friends from all places, religions, castes. I was never conditioned to differentiate. I didn’t know my caste till college. I am culturally Hindu but I have never done pooja on my own. There are no idols in our house. I grew up as very secular.”

While her father stayed at home, her mother used to go to work and that is what used to make her think that her father’s job is to cook and clean, and that he paints for recreation.

“He’d help the female maid in housework. I was embarrassed as a kid when he would do jhaaroo outside the house. This is why I grew up with no divisions,” she says in a flow. She wants her son to grow up with the same vision.

From her father the conversation jumps to Saadat Hasan Manto. “The reason why I emotionally anchor towards Manto is that my father is like Manto in so many ways. Bindaas, moun phatt, jo mann mein aaya bola,” she says, and confesses that she is also blunt and straight forward. Directing a film about Manto is her labour of love. “Manto was not from any ‘ism’. He was just himself. Making this film is a tribute to people who have lived life on their own terms. We have started believing there is no other way to live life but compromise. But people like Manto have shown us there is. For that, they paid a price.” Nandita pays that price too, as an informed choice. “When I lie down to sleep, I think a lot. See, there are too many lines on my palm.”

Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2015.

International Women’s Day: On provincial stage, women issues still glossed over

Published: March 8, 2015

Rights activists note movement in legislation for gender equality, but say it is time to walk the talk.

KARACHI: Encouraging movement has been seen in women-friendly legislation across the country in 2014. Provincial legislators in Balochistan passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill, 2014, while their counterparts in Sindh adopted the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, which outlawed marriage below the age of 18.

Just two days before the International Women’s Day, amendments were made to the Punjab Muslim Family Laws Act 2015. The penalty for underage marriage has been increased, with offenders facing a prison term of up to six months and a Rs50,000 fine. The failure to pay alimony to a woman or a child will lead to enhancement of payment.

Why, then, are the women of Pakistan continuing to suffer? “There is too much emphasis on enactment of legislation but not enough stress on implementation of the laws,” said Fauzia Waqar, chairperson of Punjab’s Commission on Women.

Mahnaz Rehman, resident director of Aurat Foundation Karachi, agreed that implementation of laws is not satisfactory. “I suggest that the government and/or judiciary should make it mandatory that after the enactment of any law, rules of business and other necessary measures will be taken within three months. If concerned departments don’t do it, they should be summoned in the court,” she said. Rehman pointed out that though the Sindh Assembly enacted a law against domestic violence in 2013 it has not drawn up the rules of business or constituted protection committees yet.

Lawyer and human rights crusader Maliha Zia Lari believes that enforcement is sometimes held back by budget problems.

“There are only three to five medico-legal departments in all of Karachi, and none in Peshawar,” she said, sharing that medico-legal officers do not have basic facilities like a space to examine women. “We have heard cases where they had no electricity and had to examine rape victims in the light of cell phones. How can we have implementation, then?”

Women’s issues – a federal issue?

“Women are 50 per cent of the population. How can issues related to them be just provincial?” asks Lari. In her opinion, the 18th Amendment may have had a positive impact in other areas of development, but not when it comes to issues related to women. “We are happy about legislation regarding Child Marriage, but that is in Sindh and Punjab. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan will not even look at it,” she said.

Lari also pointed out that it was unfortunate that the country no longer has a separate ministry for either women’s affairs or human rights.

Silver linings

The Punjab government, according to Waqar, has set up a helpline for women exclusively. “Call 080093372 and you get help of every kind if you are a woman in distress.” She expressed satisfaction over the improvement in data collection.

Activist and researcher Nazish Brohi said that this is “a time of huge possibilities, we have more space”. She said that it was encouraging that more Swara cases were being reported and more people were being arrested for crimes against women, showing a slow but stable improvement.

A changing Pakistan

As the dynamics of Pakistani society change, the lines between urban and rural culture continue to blur. “The massive scale of urbanisation has altered the demographic culture,” said Brohi.

Talking of provincial comparisons, Brohi said there is huge provincial variation. “What is true for Balochistan doesn’t resonate with the culture in Sindh.”

The situation is not bleak in Waqar’s opinion. However, proliferation of small arms in Pakistani society has affected the dynamics of violence against women (VAW) too. “In Punjab, from 161 cases in 2012 to 205 cases in 2014, there is a definite increase in the use of small arms,” she said.

“Religious extremism has increased the incidences of violence against women,” said Rehman. She added that justice and peace are prerequisites of women empowerment. For this, we have to “deweaponise society,” suggested Rehman.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2015.

Women and the peace process


The writer is a senior sub-editor at The Express Tribune and tweets @FarahnazZahidi

They lose their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers in acts of terrorism and violence. They themselves are injured and killed. Yet, the women of Pakistan do not have a voice in the peace processes in the country. They are stakeholders and direct effectees of terrorism but have no say in how it should be handled. If there is one thing that glared out at the (in)famous All-Parties Conference (APC) post the Army Public School attack, it was this: there were no women present. With the exception of perhaps, Sherry Rehman, women have hardly ever been included in the most important discussions in the country. As we gear to celebrate the International Women’s Day tomorrow, it remains a bitter truth that Pakistan’s women are considered good enough for things that we call ‘fluff’. They have a voice in health, education and other developmental issues. But there is a deafening and forced silence when it comes to their perspective on peace-building and conflict resolution strategies at all tiers, whether it is the aman jirgas or the National Action Plan (NAP).

In the year 2000, the UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on women, peace and security was adopted. This resolution recognises the need to increase women’s role in peace-building in conflict-ridden countries. However, the scope of 1325 is much wider. It not only calls for women to be included in peace talks, it also presses for a more gender-sensitive perspective to consider the special needs of women and girls during conflict, repatriation, rehabilitation, reintegration and post-conflict reconstruction. The UNSCR 1325 focuses on issues of gender-based violence and refugee camps covered in Articles 10 and 12. Thus, the impact gets wider. Post the October 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods, to name two natural disasters in Pakistan that caused massive damage and human displacement, women trafficking increased.

Since 2000, 48 countries have adopted NAPs on Resolution 1325 to make policies to fulfill the resolution’s objectives. Developing and conflict-affected countries use NAPs to support women’s participation in politics and peace processes, as well as commitments on protection from sexual and gender-based violence. Yet a less than one-fourth of UN member states have implemented these NAPs.

Pakistan has not implemented 1325. Neither has India. It is rather curious that a resolution is unanimously hailed as a step in the right direction, yet is not implemented by the government. While many activists and proponents of women’s rights in Pakistan agree in spirit with 1325, it is not without reservations. The human rights’ camp remains discretely divided over the issue. And the reason is simple. Accepting a UN Security Council resolution comes with its share of possible consequences — consequences in the form of the proverbial ‘boots’ and sanctions. Many feel that such resolutions have other ‘agenda’, which is why Pakistan, among many other countries, remains sceptical of it. Other peace and gender activists strongly assert that Pakistan has no national action plan on 1325 not just because it is afraid of sanctions but because the much-needed political will is missing. These activists regularly urge the government to implement 1325.

The reasons can be debated. But the fact remains that across the globe, from 1992 to 2011, only four per cent of signatories to peace agreements and nine per cent of negotiators at peace tables were women. In Pakistan, the numbers would be even lower. The pandemic of violence against women and girls affects one in three women worldwide, and conflict zones are the worst hit. This correlation is often missed out.

Perhaps, a less controversial and more effective way would be to go via the CEDAW Committee’s landmark General Recommendation (GR 30) on Women in Conflict Prevention, Conflict and Post-Conflict Situations. This was adopted on October 18, 2013. Pacifist and more realistic voices from the civil society feel that implementing GR 30 could also have the desired results. But even if these resolutions and recommendations are implemented, will the Pakistani woman at the grassroots level have a say, alongside the men, regarding how peace should be achieved? It is time this conversation starts, and a narrative around this is built.

Published in The Express Tribune, March  7th,  2015.

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Where Are Pakistan’s Female Muftis And Islamic Scholars?

Supporters of the Pakistani religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami attend a rally to condemn the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo for publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

“I have a problem. My husband said ‘talaaq’ (divorce) to me thrice in one sitting. Everyone says the divorce is final now although he revoked his decision within hours. I have too much at stake here, and want to stay in this marriage. I have heard that the words uttered thrice in the same sitting count as one according to some Muslim jurists. What do you say?”

These were the words of a desperate woman aged 31, and the query was directed to a female Islamic preacher.

While the preacher explained basics to her, the disclaimer at the end was: “To have a legitimate version, I would suggest you ask a Mufti.”

The girl was puzzled. This female preacher had the required knowledge and had studied Islamic Sciences in depth. Why could she not confirm it?

“Because I am not a mufti. No woman in Pakistan is. I am not certified to give you this answer. You will have to consult a male scholar.”

And so it is. In a country that presently has close to 250,000 female students studying Islamic sciences across the country, not one female mufti (an expert expounder of Islamic jurisprudence) is to be found in Pakistan. With the exception of Dr. Farhat Hashmi, even a thorough internet search will prove exhausting and futile if you try and search for mainstream Islamic scholars from Pakistan. Neighbouring India, with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, is stuck in the same lurch.

While women study, preach and uphold religious teachings and values, there is an unsaid line which they do not cross. Beyond that line is a man’s domain. In the hierarchy of serious religious scholarship and clergy, women remain submissive and at best supplementary in terms of Islamic intellectual thought. Thus, the narrative that has evolved over the centuries sorely lacks the female voice, not just in South Asia but world over. Islamic female scholars, both in the mainstream and esoteric circles, and both from a faith-based and a critical scholarship premise, have risen again. The mark has been made, but only in the upper tier of Muslim cultures. The change remains to trickle down.

“In our culture, the woman remains dependent on the man, even the educated and self-reliant ones. Traditional Islamic scholars do not want this to change. If women start learning and studying at the level of men, many existing ideological ideas will be questioned. Most traditional scholars want to stay in a state of permanent utopia. Two things are at play here: patriarchy and a monopoly over the corridors of the power that comes as an advantage of religious leadership,” says Ibrahim Qazi, a worker of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), one of Pakistan’s strongest right wing political parties.

JI, while seen as a hardliner group, has to its credit bringing the signature face-covered veiled women both into the political and evangelism arenas.

Though female voices have always been part of the Islamic Intellectual Tradition, they are not as audible as men’s voices. When asked the possible reason for this, Aurangzeb Haneef, scholar and teacher of Islamic Studies, feels that religion discouraging women is not one of them.

“In the formative and classical period, as well as going on into the medieval period, women’s contribution to the intellectual corpus is palpable. This is especially true for transmission of Hadith,” he says.

Haneef feels that in the modern period, the field has become increasingly dominated by men.

“While religious organizations such as JI have women representation, their organizational structures are not conducive to supporting women’s scholarship independent of men.”

Allowing women to enter this sphere could possibly alter gender-based power dynamics in Muslim societies. A case in point would be Laleh Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American author who is the first American woman to translate the Quran into English. The most debated in all of her translation is her interpretation of a verse of the Quran, where Bakhtiar translated the verse as “husbands should go away,” instead of the husband being allowed to hit the wife mildly if she crosses all limits (including committing infidelity in the opinion of many).

“I believe that it was because I was looking at the verses from a female perspective,” says Bakhtiar, in her answer to Al Jazeera.

While Dr Hashmi may not agree with some of the non-traditional interpretations of Bakhtiar and others, she has to her credit brought a surge of Pakistani women from all strata of society into the fold of deliberated Islamic study. The liberals in Pakistan often see Dr Hashmi as a strict hardliner. Yet, she has also had to face opposition from more strict and traditional schools of thought.

“It is sad that there is such a dearth of Islamic scholars who are women. It is very important that women come into this field and invest their time into research in Islamic Studies. In fact, there is nothing against a woman becoming a Muftiah,” says Dr Hashmi.

Her expertise is Hadith Sciences, and in this she is inspired by historical accounts of Muhaddithat (female hadith narrators and scholars). One of the recent literary works on the subject is by Akram Nadwi who has compiled a biographical dictionary called “Al-Muhaddithat: The women scholars in Islam.” As he began his research, he hoped to find 20 to 30, but ended up finding more than 8000 of them.

“It is easier to perpetuate male authority and to cite men (even on ‘women’s issues’) than to acknowledge women’s voices, particularly where women do not have the same easily recognizable credentials or public profiles as their male counterparts,” says Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University. “One way to begin to chip away at this disproportionate emphasis on male scholarship is to bring women’s voices and contributions to the fore on many issues, not just those concerning women.”

But Haneef says that women have a natural advantage when it comes to such issues.

“Women can think, understand, and deliberate better on issues pertaining to women and gender relations.”

The role of women as mothers and nurturers makes them safe choices, for teaching and preaching, seen as lighter ‘fluff’ work, but intensive research and redefining discourse is seen as too hardcore for the gentler sex. This is in sharp contrast with women at the time of the Prophet (pbuh), who were nurturers and home-makers, as well as scholars. One of the most prominent Islamic jurists of her time was his wife Umm Salama, known for her fatawa. Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, Chairman Pakistan Ulema Council, says that these examples must be followed.

“Muslims have inherited a big chunk of their knowledge of religion from these honoured women. Even today, women must play their role. But it is not necessarily patriarchy at work that is hindering this process. If women, themselves, decide to forge ahead in this field, no obstacle will stop them,” says Ashrafi.

One such woman is Emaan Asif, a business graduate who gave up her professional career by choice, and is currently studying to become an ‘Aalima, a degree in Islamic sciences awarded by traditional schools. Yet, Emaan has no scholarly ambitions for doing this. Her reason is simply to learn more about her faith and “become a better Muslim”. Her husband, Asif Misbah, supports her through the demands of this period of painstaking extensive study.

He feels one must venture into this field “as long as it does not compromise any fundamental life-role or leads to sharia non-compliance in any aspect, for both men and women.”

According to Haneef, the female voice is necessary and her perspective essential in the Islamic narrative.

“By virtue of her position, ‘Ayesha added aspects of the Prophet’s (pbuh) life to the Hadith corpus that were humane, personal, and intimate and might have been lost,” he says, citing the Prophet’s (pbuh) wife as an example.

While the change may have begun with a resurgence of women being seen in the area of Islamic scholarship, “it will be a long and discontinuous process,” says Ali. “But like anything worth doing, one must try.”

Bakhtiar is hopeful and feels that change takes time.

“We have to be patient.”

Content posted to MyMPN open blogs is the opinion of the author alone, and should not be attributed to MintPress News.

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About The Author
Farahnaz Zahidi
Farahnaz Zahidi
Farahnaz Zahidi is a Pakistani writer and editor, who writes to “tell stories that need to be told and contribute towards a better Pakistan, a better world.” Her areas of focus include gender, environment, peace-building and Islam. She currently works forThe Express Tribune. She blogs at chaaidaani and her photo-journalism can be seen on Flickr.

Success stories: From Balochistan to Karachi: Sewing lives back together

Zarmina and Bakhtawar display the dresses they have made. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI/EXPRESS

Whenever a well-dressed woman appears on television, Sohrab Khan Marri calls out loudly to his daughters Uzma and Sanam. “Look. This is the latest design. You can make something like this for your clients,” he says.

A year ago, the environment in this house in Quetta was very different. While Marri and his wife are educated people and allowed their girls to get an education, working outside the home was taboo for women in their family. All that changed after the two sisters stepped out of their comfort zone and travelled to Karachi to attend a six month-long fashion design course, introduced by Institute for Development Studies and Practices (IDSP) to help empower young women from Balochistan. “Before the course, I did not know I had a purpose in life. Now life is so exciting! I have realized I have the power to be a role model for the women of my area. I now teach women at Darul Aman Quetta the same skills I learnt. I also try and build their confidence,” says Uzma. “All of the 20 girls who were chosen for the first batch are from Balochistan. We extend help to anyone who we feel is marginalised and is from vulnerable segments of society,” explains Asma Zafar, Manager Institutional Support at IDSP. Zafar is in charge of these projects, and shares that the second batch of girls will soon start the course. The young women come from communities across Balochistan but they have one thing in common: life has not been easy on them. Their problems are mostly an overlap of poverty, insecurity and violence. “There have been cases on Saryaab Road area in Quetta where acid was thrown on women simply because they ventured out of their homes to work,” says Zafar. According to her, if these women step out of their homes to work, the Pashtoon rikshaw drivers will not take a Baloch woman as a passenger, and vice versa, as they do not want to get involved with the responsibility of helping a woman from another community commute to work. “The girls come to us with social conditioning and ethnic bias at times. But the same girls who initially do not want to talk to each other have, by the end, become best friends,” says Zafar, explaining how the project also serves as a peace-building initiative. Zarina and Bakhtawar speak to each other in Dari when asked if Karachi has been the safe haven they hoped it would be. They are from the Shia Hazara community and migrated to Karachi from Quetta more than 15 years ago, in search of a more secure and comfortable life. But while Karachi has given them a lot, it has also taken away a significant amount. Zarina’s 32-year-old brother, along with two others, was shot earlier this year at Karachi’s Maskan Chowrangi just because he belonged to the Hazara community. “An FIR was lodged but there was no follow-up. My brother has left behind five children, a young wife and our parents,” says Zarina. A resident of Manghopir area, there are 18 family members in Zarina’s house. The ISDP provides these girls with the basic materials they need for the course, like fabric. The profit is shared on a 50-50 basis between the girls and IDSP. In addition the girls are paid separately for the hard work they put in. To help girls like herself, Zarina is teaching 10 girls in her neighbourhood. “I charge them Rs200 each and earn about Rs2000 a month from that too. Recently, a supporter of the organization internationally exhibited the clothes designed by these girls and sold them. “We are taught everything, right from sketching, drafting, cutting and stitching,” says Zarina. What is most interesting is how these girls, in this women-friendly space, learn each other’s traditional stitches specific to the culture of each community. Zarina, for instance, displays very fine embroidery done in the Qibtimaar stitch, typical to the Hazara community. The course includes more than just fashion design. The girls are taught basic skills like oral hygiene and self-grooming techniques. “The first girl from a family comes to us with a lot of difficulty. But once they start earning, the male family members also come on board. The entire family transforms. But this is done one girl at a time,” says Zafar. Uzma adds, “I think we have succeeded in opening a small door to opportunity for the other girls of my family.” Published in The Express Tribune, September 12th, 2014.