Maliha Abidi is a Karachi-born artist and author of Pakistan for Women an illustrated storybook celebrating the achievements of Pakistani women. From mountaineers to activists and astrophysicists, the book brings together the stories of over 50 extraordinary women who defied odds and influenced positive change. Ms Abidi was recently visiting Pakistan from Sussex, where she is studying medical neuroscience, and Dawn caught up with her to talk about her work.

Q: How did you start drawing portraits of Pakistani women?

A: I have been drawing people for as long as I can remember. As a self-taught artist, whenever I picked up a paintbrush or sat down to draw, my heart drew me towards portraits. Over the years, I have drawn portraits of women from many cultures and from different parts of the world.

As a woman from Pakistan, it was only natural that I began drawing women from my culture. I wanted to do a series to celebrate Pakistani women, which I eventually turned into a book. Through my work, I also wanted to challenge some misconceptions people outside Pakistan have about the country. I wanted to show that while we do have problems and women are denied rights, there are some women who have not only paved the way for themselves but also millions of others across the country.

Q: What was the idea behind creating an illustrated storybook?

A: Girls in Pakistan are often discouraged from pursuing their dreams. Families have misconceptions rooted in culture or cite reasons such as honour or responsibilities to hold their daughters back from what they wish to do. But very often little girls are told that they can’t do certain things because they are in Pakistan. Through these stories, I wanted to show that these women, despite being born in this country, overcame challenges, came up with solutions and became a source of inspiration for many.

I wanted to tell all the girls reading these stories that if these Pakistani women can achieve their dreams through hard work and determination, so can they. Pakistan for Women reads like a storybook and each story begins with ‘Once upon a time…’ and alongside the story, there is a full-page illustration of the woman whose story is being told.

In my own life, art has inspired me in endless ways. It has a way of grabbing one’s attention and telling a story so when I decided to tell the stories of Pakistani women, art seemed to be the best medium.

Q: Who is included in this book and how did you decide who to include?

A: I don’t want to disclose the names of all 50 women included in the book, because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone reading it, but you will see some amazing stories in there. You will read a story of a fire fighter, an astrophysicist, a singer, an educationist and many more.

It was difficult choosing which women to include in my book. The process took me from an initial 80 names to 50 and it could have easily been a thousand because Pakistan has so many inspirational stories of excellence and brilliance. I wanted to ensure diversity and also include contemporary women. Eventually, I ended up with 50 trailblazers who made Pakistan, shaped Pakistan, began something unique and are still doing wonders for this country.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2019