IN early March I was fortunate to attend the Ladiesfund 2013 awards. This is an annual event set up by T.U. Dawood.
The ceremony’s aim is to celebrate the achievements of women in business, and over the last five years the event has grown from something quite small to something quite amazing as more and more people realise that encouraging Pakistani women in business and entrepreneurship is the best way to create a strong economy and a healthy nation.
It was no surprise when the Khushali Bank Idol award went to Malala Yousufzai, who was of course not here in Pakistan to collect her award. But it was a huge surprise when two more Idol awards also went to her two friends, Shazia and Kainat, who were with her when she was shot by the Pakistani Taliban. The two girls threw themselves over their friend and were also shot, although less grievously injured. Still, Shazia, 13, lost two fingers in her right hand, while Kainat, 15, was shot in the right arm.
Both girls now want to be doctors — Shazia wants to be an army doctor, while Kainat wants to be a heart surgeon, a decision no doubt influenced on the care they received while in hospitals being treated for their wounds.
When their names were announced and they both came on stage, an electric current went through everyone in the audience. They stood on the podium to accept Malala’s award on her behalf, and to receive their own awards, which included money to complete their education and start a business. Then they addressed the audience: they thanked everyone for supporting them, and exhorted all of us to support girls’ education in Pakistan.
They spoke with poise and confidence, their girlish voices ringing out in the warm spring air, tinged with the accent of Swat and the energy of youth. For me and everyone else there, they were the true celebrities of the evening.
Many other accomplished Pakistani women were celebrated on that fine afternoon: the renowned poet Zehra Nigah took home a Lifetime Achievement Award; Azra Ahmed of Rivaj Furniture and Nida Butt of Made4Stage Productions were recognised for their entrepreneurship while Ameena Saiyid of OUP won Woman of the Year for her work spearheading the very successful Karachi Literature Festival.
In addition to this, more women won awards for their achievements in the fields of fashion, public health, medicine, and social work (the arts and literature should also be added to these for next year). Talea Zafar of children’s Urdu songs website Toffee TV won a PASHA Social Innovation Fund grant and 12 other women and girls won scholarships at local universities and summer school at colleges and universities in the United States.
The event, held this March, which is designated as Women’s History Month, was a success in every way. Still, it may raise the question in some minds whether women truly need a separate occasion in which to celebrate themselves. Doesn’t this lead to some sort of gender apartheid, taking women out of the mainstream of competition and accomplishment side by side with men? Are the accomplishments of women somehow lessened when not compared to those of men?
Dosomething.org, a website that mobilises people to get involved with social causes and activism, explains the need for International Women’s Day: it’s a day not just to celebrate the advances of women in society, but to also create opportunities for women who are less fortunate or need that extra recognition and help.
People love to decry feminism as a Western notion, a plaything of rich women with nothing better to do, but nothing could be more necessary in Pakistan, where ordinary women still struggle with the basics of everyday life, facing sexual harassment and violence, domestic violence, discriminatory laws and regressive social attitudes.
It’s also important that we recognise the struggles of those women who sacrificed a great deal in the past in order to further the cause of women’s equality. In Pakistan, groundbreaking women’s organisations like the Women’s Action Forum, War Against Rape, the Aurat Foundation, and Tehrik-i-Niswan, have been working for the last 30 years to advocate for the rights of Pakistani women.
This month is the perfect time to celebrate the accomplishments of pioneering journalists such as Zubeida Mustafa, Beena Sarwar, and Sherry Rehman, dedicated feminists who changed public opinion in favour of women’s rights with their tireless journalism and drawing the attention of the media to the cause of women. And let’s also recognise the excellent work that has been done by the National Commission for the Status of Women, led until recently by the wonderful Anis Haroon, in terms of recommending changes in policy and law with regards to women’s rights.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about being a woman in Pakistan, it’s that nobody is going to stand up for us and advocate for our rights more wholeheartedly than ourselves. And the efforts of women to empower themselves do bear fruit eventually: a recent news report showed that after strict legislation against acid attacks was enacted in Pakistan, convictions have tripled from two per cent to 18 per cent.
This legislation came about because of the efforts of women in parliament across party lines. How much more Pakistani women can accomplish in the future remains only to be seen, but it’s a future that looks bright for all of us as we find our feet and voice and wings. So let’s take this month to celebrate! We women certainly deserve it.
The writer is the author of Slum Child.