She is a researcher, development consultant, trainer, educationist, media person, writer, and so much more but the one word that defines Dr Fouzia Saeed is ‘social activist’ endeavouring to bring a social change in the society. “I work like a labourer and at times 24/7 with no Sundays off.”
“The two main thrust of my work are citizens and their rights whether engaging with the government or the civil society. Empowering myself and other individuals and to create an environment that helps us achieve our rights and take on the responsibility of transforming our society so that we can live happily in it, adds Dr Saeed.
Working at so many different levels and with so many different actors has not been easy for Dr Saeed. Comfortable, she is nowhere, mainly because she is a citizen trying to change things around and also because she is a woman. “Our male dominated institutions have set notions about women and it becomes part of our conscious mind that we are being judged, understand how we are being judged and then counter it. My first task is to educate the person I am interacting with whether he is a minister, a section officer, or an institution head. We have to settle this wrestling match in the first few minutes to be heard,” she amusingly laments.
However, she finds it most difficult to work with the bureaucrats, who are ‘supposedly’ educated but lack sensitisation and understanding on human rights issues and the ‘résistance then is so glossy, slippery and conniving’ that it is difficult to tackle. Working with the UN had its own up and downsides. She liked working with the UN because it is the only international platform which allows every government or nation to be a part of. “But working with the UN means that 80 per cent of your energy goes into institutional work and 20 per cent is left for creative work,” she says.
Dr Saeed is most happy working for her organisation, ‘Mehergarh; A Centre for Learning’. It is a volunteer-based organisation focused on training and research aimed at issues surrounding human rights activism for youth. Here although the change is small but the canvas is much broader and according to her, hundred per cent of her energies go in creative work. “I am making an impact and getting results. I am a result-oriented person and go for result-oriented action,” she states confidently.
Answering a query on her views on youth, Dr Saeed contended that the nation has not invested enough in the youth and that her concerned is more for the educated youth, who lacks critical thinking and is therefore easier to beguile and also because of the internet they feel they know everything. Instead she sees potential in the rural youth because there is more yearning to learn.
Information boom is good but what should concern us is what they are picking up from the internet. We generally prefer to read things that reinforce our ideas and beliefs and what is important here is to be able to sift information critically and creatively and arrive at conclusions that will help them become a sensitive and productive member of the society. However, the doctor is hopeful that our youth will understand human rights better than we did.
Commenting on what is important structural or mindset change, Dr Saeed is clear that one cannot be achieved without the other as they are interconnected. She believes that behavioural change comes from both mindset and structural change. It is the power hierarchies that resist change. So unless these power structures are broken and replaced with good and effective structures the mindset will not change, just creating awareness is not enough besides accountability is vital here.
This is quite evident in the Mukhtaran Mai case where a crime was committed against an innocent citizen and yet the majority of the culprits went free because of the strong power structures providing safety to the criminals. “It was a test case and a major setback. It spoke volumes about our faulty criminal justice system, starting from the police reporting to documentation of evidence, the long delays, mindset of the lawyers and judges. The whole system needs overhauling and we need to wake up to this faulty system,” she avers.
Being a social activist Dr Saeed is aware of religious militancy and how it is gnawing away our youth and nation. She has been actively working to counter religious militancy through formal movements. She started Amankar Tehreek and is a part of think tanks working on the issue. According to her she is most concerned that we have not been able to push the militant leadership on the defensive yet thus resulting in rapid growth of militants.
“It can be countered. Firstly, educated people should start questioning. We must first reflect on what is being said rather than place everything in the religious context. This needs to stop,” she affirms. She says it is vital to engage the youth in reflective and critical thinking and encourage them to ask questions, something that is totally missing in our education system. Student unions, organisations and societies should flourish and performing arts must be promoted in educational institutions. She advocates setting up complaint centres where people can complain about unauthorised building of mosques, madressahs, or activities that incite religious intolerance and extremism.
Dr Saeed firmly believes that our salvation lies in elected representation. “I believe it truly represents the people, our society. Whatever faults we see in our elected government are reflections of the faults in our society.” She is most critical of the way the media grilled the politicians and the elected members to sell their channels but never made the military, bureaucracy or the feudal accountable for their actions.
Dr Saeed vehemently rejects that this can be attributed to lack of education. “Educated people by design control, stop and resist change,” she observes. She opines that we are just buying into the agenda of discrediting elected people and damage the only system that will take us forward. We need to strengthen the elected representatives to save the system.
Expressing her concern on NGO bashing, she feels that the forces who are doing this want to ensure that those who are trying to shift the status quo are stigmatised. Their agenda is to create an impression that NGOs are run by westernised women with foreign funding trying to make issues out of non issues such as Mukhtaran Mai’s case.
As mentioned above Dr Fouzia has books to her credit but Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light District, deserves special mention. “Women issues have always been close to my heart; violence, prostitution etc., but it was my deep link to performing arts and the heavy stigma attached to it that spurred me to write Taboo,” she explains.