Why is representation important to people who've been told that their stories don't matter? How does visibility build self-esteem in those whose rights have been trampled upon? What role can role models play in encouraging the marginalised to overcome social barriers and pursue a life of dignity? Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui does an excellent job of answering these questions with respect to Pakistani women " a large, diverse and often stereotyped group of people " in her new book, Fearless: Stories of Amazing Women from Pakistan (2020).
"Over and over, research reiterates the importance of diversity in mainstream media and literature and yet, what many of us consume is often restricted to a western construct and aesthetic," she writes, in her introduction to this 110-page volume published by Penguin. The author reveals that her own children have enjoyed reading about illustrious and accomplished women such as Ada Lovelace, Joan of Arc and Frida Kahlo but they have come across few South Asian women in their books.
An attempt to "rectify this omission and introduce the world to Pakistani women " leaders, innovators, artists, entrepreneurs and change-makers'' guided Shaikh-Farooqui's vision as a writer. She conceptualised and researched the book along with Aurelie Salvaire. "If You Can't See It, You Can't Be It," the overarching framework, is also announced on the contents pages, which not only give the reader a glimpse of the personalities they will encounter but also an illustrated timeline of significant events connected to the women's rights movement in Pakistan.
Here are some examples: In 1949, the All Pakistan Women's Association (APWA) was established to advance the welfare of women, initially focusing on the refugee population. In 1950, the Democratic Women's Association was created in order to demand equal pay for equal work. 1981, the Pakistan Women Lawyers Association and Legal Aid Cell was founded to provide free legal aid to women. In 1996, Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In 2018, a collective of feminist activists and organisations initiated the Aurat March as an annual protest on International Women's Day.
The timeline, which begins in 1943 and goes on till 2018, is helpful in understanding the political context within which the Pakistani women featured in the book made their mark. The author shows how grassroots policy reforms created the opportunities they were denied earlier. Each decade has been marked by turbulence on the domestic and international front " nationalist struggles, communal violence, threats to democracy, war, military rule " but also filled with promise as women have asserted their desire to lead, make decisions, and to shape the future of their society.
Shukria Khanum, for instance, was the first woman in Pakistan to get a commercial pilot's license in 1959. She worked for Pakistan International Airlines at a time when stewarding was believed to be the only acceptable role for women in aviation. When she learnt that she would not be allowed to fly commercial aircrafts, despite her qualifications, she did not give up. She took up the position of a flight instructor in the training centre. In the early 1980s, she was banned from being in a cockpit with male colleagues. This was humiliating because some of these men were her own students. Her unwillingness to back down opened up a path for other women in later years to become pilots.
Sana Mir has earned many laurels for Pakistan as the captain of their national women's cricket team. Though she grew up playing cricket with boys in her neighbourhood, and also led the basketball and swimming teams in her college, her family was shocked when they realised that she would choose sports over engineering. They supported her eventually, knowing fully well that women in sports were not respected in their country and had limited domestic avenues open. Apart from following her passion, she also became an advocate for women's empowerment through sports, and spoke up against body shaming in professional settings.
Seemin Jamali wanted to be a doctor since the age of six. She now serves as the Executive Director and Head of the Emergency Department at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre in Karachi. She has treated patients with gunshot wounds, victims of terror attacks and bomb blasts putting her own life at risk. Apart from foregoing a lucrative private practice and dedicating herself to public health instead, she has also been addressing gender-based crimes and pushing for better facilities in hospitals that are in a state of disrepair due to corruption and neglect.
Shaikh-Farooqui's book is a visual treat, thanks to the illustrations by Aziza Ahmad, and the design and layout by Sara Nisar. However, it is not a coffee table book with more style, less substance. It documents the patriarchal violence that many of the women featured had to confront. Syeda Ghulam Fatima has been beaten and electrocuted for her activism against brick kiln owners who use bonded labour. Sabeen Mahmud was shot for hosting a panel discussion on human rights violations in Balochistan. Benazir Bhutto, Perween Rehman and Qandeel Baloch were killed for taking on powerful men rattled by their growing influence.
The book keeps its focus on cis-het women. Nergis Mavalvala is the only one who openly identifies as a queer person. To her credit, the author does examine how class, education and access to networks of influence, enabled several of these women to enter spaces dominated by men. Architect Yasmeen Lari, considered an authority on sustainable architecture and community-based initiatives in urban planning, is quoted as saying, "I'm not sure whether I had as much difficulty being Pakistan's first woman architect as might be imagined. If you come from a privileged background, you do not have as much of a problem, because you have a support system." She is referring to her father, a bureaucrat involved with major development projects. Salima Hashmi, Asma Jahangir, Ameena Saiyid are some of the other women in the book who belong to privileged families. While this opened the locks to many doors, it would be unfair to belittle their contributions. They have consistently fought against religious extremism while promoting critical thinking and human rights, thus becoming troublemakers in the eyes of the establishment.
Shaikh-Farooqui has made a commendable effort to celebrate women who have not had these privileges. One such exemplary woman is Mukhtaran Mai, who broke the silence around gangrape in Pakistan by publicly naming her rapists. Though the legal system allowed many of these men to escape without punishment, she used the compensation money received from the government to establish schools, a women's shelter, a clinic, a public library and an ambulance service.
Another example is singer Reshma, who was raised by a poor family in rural Sindh. Though she did not receive formal schooling, she grew up in a nomadic community with a rich culture of performing arts. She contributed to the family income by singing at Sufi shrines. At the age of 12, she was spotted by a radio producer outside one such shrine, and went on to win the hearts of listeners in Pakistan as well as India. which is reflected in a quote of hers which Shaikh-Farooqui uses: "borders do not matter...because an artiste belongs to all. For me, there is no difference between India and Pakistan, they are like my two eyes."
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights