Maha Ahmed Qureshi was a 20-year-old student at NUST Business School when she was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. She was treated with eight rounds of chemotherapy in 2012. Next year, her cancer relapsed and she had to go through another six rounds of chemotherapy. Maha continued her studies throughout her treatment and graduated in the summer of 2013.
After her graduation, her doctors fearing another relapse suggested a stem cell transplant from the US.
“At first, I out rightly refused the transplant fearing long-term damage to my mental and physical health, I feared being physically unattractive once again. Take it from someone who had to shave her head twice, it’s not easy to see yourself in the mirror everyday when chemotherapy destroys every living cell in your body,” she said
Eventually, she realized she wanted to live for her family, who had stood by her through her ordeal. “I understood I was never meant to live a normal life. My milestones would not be like those of my Facebook friends-first job, engagements, marriages, children,” she said.
She finally agreed to the treatment and today, at 23, she is a survivor. She works as a marketing executive at an advertising agency, working long hours each day. “For me, every day is a milestone. A day to be celebrated,” she said.
On International Women’s Day, Dawn tells the stories of four ordinary women who have persevered against all odds and triumphed
Falaknaz Asfandyar is the wife of late Asfandyar Amirzeb, a vocal opponent of the Taliban in Swat Valley. In 2007, when the Fazlullah’s forces began terrorising the people of the valley, they turned to Asfandayar, a prince whose family had ruled the valley for 100 years. Aware of the risks, Falaknaz stood by him as he campaigned for a seat in the general elections of 2007.
On December 28, 2007 he was assassinated by the Taliban, in a roadside remote-controlled bomb. Their youngest daughter was only seven at the time.
Since then Falaknaz has been working for the people of Swat. She helped collect funds for the IDPs who left their homes in the military operations against Taliban. During the floods in 2010, she again collected funds for distribution of food packages among those affected.
Later, she was personally involved in relocating over 300 families. She is a courageous advocate for women’s rights in the valley and an active member of Women without Borders -SAVE (Sisters against Violent Extremism). “The biggest hurdle for women today is our legal system, whether it is inheritance, domestic disputes or divorce. The system should give them speedy justice,” she said.
Nosheen Ghafoor was 14-years-old when her father died. Her family was left without a source of income and she realised she had to leave school and find a job. She found work at a beauty salon in Dhoke Paracha, Rawalpindi. There, she earned Rs4000 a month, which became her family’s lifeline. Nosheen worked hard as she trained on the job, learning hairdressing and makeup.
Today, at 19 she works at one of Islamabad’s leading saloons. Her income is helping put her younger sisters through school. “Inside the parlour, we feel safe. It’s a woman’s world. But outside these walls, the world isn’t very kind to girls. I wish people wouldn’t make us feel unsafe with the way they look at us,” she said.
Naseem Akhtar was born in a village near Jhelum. Her father was a staunch believer in women’s education. He helped his wife complete primary school education at home. There was no school for girls in the village, so Naseem’s father also taught his daughters at home and convinced the boy’s primary school to let them sit for exams.
Later, he moved the family to Lahore so that the children could attend colleges. Naseem’s younger sister was among the first batch of women doctors to graduate from Fatimah Jinnah Medical College. Naseem completed her Bachelors and worked as a teacher before she was married to a young army captain.
For a few years, she lived with her in-laws in their village. There she homeschooled her sisters-in-law and helped them finish primary school. In 1971, her husband became a prisoner of war and she was forced to leave East Pakistan with her four children. A few months later, her youngest daughter was born. “For many months, I did not know if my husband was alive. But I had to be strong for my children. I focused on ensuring their education is not interrupted,” she said.
Today, at 84, she is a mother, a grandmother and a great grandmother. Her children are doctors and engineers and her grandson just finished his PhD. “One educated woman can change the destiny of a whole village,” she says.
Published in Dawn March 8th , 2015