‘A woman in a man’s world!’ That is how working women, my contemporaries in the 1960s, were described. We chose to give up the comfort zone of our homes to crash into a preserve dominated by professionals. Since these professionals happened to be men (except in the fields of teaching and medicine where the female presence was pretty visible) it required us to break the gender barrier as well. Yet we regarded ourselves foremost as professionals.
We were also seen as bulls in a china shop. We did not exactly want to smash everything up but had no inhibitions about our dreams to create a brave new world. And we certainly had a lot of idealism in us. The ‘60s may be dubbed as the golden age of the debut of female professionals in the workplace. Practically no area of public life was left untouched by women struggling to get in — and succeeding.
It would be wrong to say that women had not made a mark in public life before us. There were many icons who served as role models. But they were scattered and restricted to a few areas. After the ‘60s feminisation of the professions began no career was left untouched by women.
Nafisa Hoodbhoy, a former colleague from Dawn, reminded me jokingly of the series of interviews she did generically titled “Women in Careers”. Every woman she talked to was a “first” in her field in the gender context. The ‘60s were indeed watershed years. Quite a few of the women, who graduated from the University of Karachi, went on to enter one profession or the other. We were like a growing force, drawing inspiration from the few who had preceded us.
I joined the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs as a research officer, having studied International Relations. It needed a lot of courage in those days to go into a male preserve.
It wasn’t quite the done thing. With enlightened and supportive parents I didn’t have to wage a battle at home as many other women had to. My anchor in my day-to-day working life was a very dear friend, Khalida Qureshi, who provided me the confidence that I needed.
Being together in those early years made a lot of difference to both of us as we could hold our own. It also made me strong in the coming years when I had to fend for myself. That is how most women managed. We didn’t have unions of women workers or exclusive collective bargaining powers. We trod a cautious path because there were not many laws protecting our rights and we lacked the strength of numbers as is the case today.
For nearly five years after I joined Dawn in 1975, after a child-rearing break, there was just another woman staffer there, Rukhsana Mashhadi, who worked part-time to edit the women’s page and the entertainment columns. I admired her for her commitment to the women’s cause. She always had with her as a permanent companion, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. That and her persistent requests to me for an article got me involved in women’s issues.
It was Rukhsana who widened the area of my journalistic interests. This came in handy in the Zia period when the Women’s Action Forum was founded. No other paper followed WAF’s progress as closely as Dawn did as it thrilled me to comment on the nascent women’s movement in Pakistan.
People ask me how did it feel to be a lone woman most of the time. At the time I hardly thought much about it, because for me and many others in my position the dilemma was of balancing our life outside the home and our family responsibilities. Besides we were the first generation to view our roles beyond basically as homemakers and child-carers. It was a balancing act we were required to perform between the sense of guilt that gnawed at our conscience vis-à-vis our children and the deep satisfaction that engulfed us when we were given credit for an assignment well done.
Another fact that not many women have admitted to is the discrimination in reverse many of us were privileged to enjoy. Today it does not seem strange when the concept of working from home allows men and women to absent themselves from office for days at an end even if they have nothing to show for their absence. At a time when we were expected to be around in office, it was a luxury to come in early and go home at lunch time to be with my girls. I was, however, expected to hand in my work on time and many Dawn editorials were written late in the night as I sat curled up in bed when my children were fast asleep.
As for society pointing fingers at me, I really didn’t care so long as I had my family’s support for my unconventional lifestyle, given the norms back then. I think that is how most women serious about a career coped. A career was not for the faint-hearted. I didn’t change, society changed.
At Dawn I saw the change come in the form of the influx of women — many of them introduced by me. When Dawn celebrated Ahmad Ali Khan Sahib’s 25 years of editorship at the Karachi Press Club, Mr Mahmoud Haroon, the chairperson of the PHPL, could proudly claim that his paper had inducted women into the media in a big way. Our number had grown to 16 that caused Uneza Akhtar, a delightful colleague who edited the mid-week magazine, to remark pithily that we were the “sola singhar of Dawn”.
Did we face any “discrimination” or harassment? When I look at it in retrospect, it makes me laugh. They were pinpricks compared to the threats journalists face today. When Ziaul Haq refused to accept me as a member of his press entourage in an official foreign tour because he thought it odd to have one female in a bunch of male reporters, it gave me great satisfaction to turn down the revived invitation when the Begum Sahiba said she wanted to accompany the president.
Did it matter when I wrote an article on breast cancer and a delegation of bearded ‘venerables’ raided Haroon House protesting against “obscenity”? The editor shooed them off saying how could they be so callous in a matter of life and death. As for me, I went on to write about women’s reproductive health and contraception without fearing for my life.
Today we flatter ourselves with the thought that our generation set the tradition. Many broke the glass ceiling and went on to become great achievers. Who can forget the giants like Razia Bhatti who showed guts in the face of great adversity and along with others, like Sherry Rahman, Maleeha Lodhi, Rehana Hakim and Zohra Yusuf, became editor. The quality that stood us in good stead was our ability to bond together and network skillfully even in an age when the Internet was called the Information Highway and none of us had a computer. But we had humanism in abundance.