In early 2019, Syra Rashid Vahidy launched the Zeenat Haroon Rashid (ZHR) Writing Prize for Women. With the very first winner about to be announced, Vahidy speaks to Eos about the intent and goals of the contest, the problems faced, the lessons learned and her plans for the future

How and why did you come up with the ZHR Writing Prize For Women?

The project was initiated in memory of my mother, Zeenat Haroon Rashid, who passed away in 2017. All her life she had been an avid reader, whether it was newspapers or books. Politics was her passion, but she read lots of fiction and all the contemporary authors of her day — she had a weakness for Agatha Christie. Karachi had lots of bookshops in those days. My parents also belonged to a book-of-the-month club where they would receive books from abroad and they had a good library at home.

My mother was also a great champion of women all her life. She set an example not by just her own self — she was one of the first members of the Sind National Women’s Guard — but through her daughters and granddaughters as well. She encouraged them to pursue their passions and not think they couldn’t do anything just because they were girls.

So I wanted to do something charitable in her name and since I have the same passion for reading that she had, this was motivational for me as well, to be able to read what the concerns of women in Pakistan are. This is also, as far as I know, the first competition to offer a large cash prize for short writing in Pakistan.

What was the idea behind the theme ‘Women and Pakistan’?

The idea was that you should have women and Pakistan at the centre of the piece. It’s not about universality, but particularity — not something that could fit women in any other part of the world. The diaspora is welcome to write, but I don’t want to hear about what it means to be a Pakistani woman living in the West or elsewhere unless it’s about the journey from one to the other, or back.

Were the submissions as you had expected?

I didn’t really know what to expect. The first month I was very depressed because we received only 20 or 30 submissions and they weren’t very good. Then on the last three days we were inundated with entries. I sifted through the 500 entries, cut them down to the best 100 and then to 40. I got my literary friends who are teachers, readers and writers to go through them and we came to a longlist of 24 which were then read by the judges.

Why mandate a minimum age for writers?

I didn’t want schoolgirl essays on what it means to be a woman in Pakistan, where it could turn into a school project where the teacher says, “Okay, everybody write for this competition.” We’re looking for mature writers, some kind of sophistication, and most of our long- and shortlisted writers are probably in their mid-20s to mid-30s or older. Several girls wrote in that they were not of age, could they still enter? I said, this is an annual prize, so if you’re 16 or 17, enter next year.

Did you face any problems with entries?

One was that there were good entries with errors of grammar and syntax — we just couldn’t include them simply because that’s not what writing prizes are about. I got many academic essays with ‘the women of Pakistan are this and that’ or ‘the women of Pakistan are not equal’ or ‘the women of Pakistan are terrific’ or ‘this is what such-and-such report says.’ That’s not what we want. We want something that’s generally readable and interesting to lay readers. I also got poems, although our website said we would not consider poems. One lady wrote ‘I desperately need the money because my husband is very ill, do you think you could give it to me?’

There were problems with submitting even though we made the process very simple. One judge said I needed special software used by writing contests where one must download a form, fill it in and attach the story. But I knew the moment you add one more step for people to negotiate, it’s not going to work. With the ZHR Writing Prize, you just had to give your name, postal address, CNIC or NICOP number and attach your file to an email. Still, I received entries without attachments. I received CVs. People didn’t put down an address, or sent four different addresses, none of which matched a CNIC.

People are very casual about submitting personal information. This is something in Pakistan we haven’t learned yet. When cash is involved, we have to verify your identity. It’s also a women’s prize. Suppose a man enters — how am I to know unless I ask for an identity card?

Then, we got questions on how to enter. All our publicity material and social media gives links to our website where we have all the information, but no one ever went there. People had to be directed from our Facebook page. It was perplexing.

How did you arrive at the winner?

The judges had one hell of a time choosing the shortlist. Not one story had everyone’s vote. All were that good. Five votes out of six were the most that one or two stories had. Then they couldn’t come to a winner because everybody had a different favourite. It’s very subjective, but the real problem was that the judges were comparing short story fiction with non-fiction. So we’ve decided from next year onwards to have non-fiction one year and fiction the next.

It was surprising to learn of all the places the entries had come from.

The best entries were from the big cities — Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad — and I think we got that response [from the smaller towns] because of social media, with people such as Shehzad Roy and influencers with large followings tweeting about it. I felt very sad in one way because a lot of girls couldn’t express themselves very well in English, but they had things they wanted to say. The cash prize probably was tempting also, but mostly — at least I like to think — it was because women wanted to tell somebody about their experiences or their ideas and often girls in very remote locations don’t have that outlet. But the very fact that they entered, that they felt they could write... It was not necessarily the best English, but it was at least an attempt.

The theme ‘Women and Pakistan’ would presumably have generated some dark writing. Among the genuine outpourings, did any seem contrived?

They could be thinking that this is drama, this is dramatic, this is what makes a good story. But often there were such graphic details. People described rape in very graphic detail. Now, either they’re very good writers or it’s based on being interfered with, or sexual molestation or child sexual abuse. I know there’s a lot of that in our society. One shortlisted story is about a woman who gets molested by a doctor in a hospital and I was shocked to read two days ago about a handicapped woman that a ward boy tried to molest. I’m not saying they’re all based on personal experience, but these are common experiences that people are aware of, that they read every day in the papers.

But there were also lots of funny, heart-warming things which men are not even aware of that women go through, such as problems with body hair, dark complexions and how girls feel about that, the whole rishta [marriage proposal] parade, the thirst for wanting to go to college and getting higher education. Not just violence, rape and sexual abuse, but wanting more out of life. Wanting to explore the boundaries that have been put on women and wanting to redefine roles for women.

Did the judges lean more towards the dark writing, or the lighter pieces?

They leaned towards good writing, an original voice, with a good turn of phrase. Did the writer have an original perspective? If the story was dark, did she have something fresh to say about it or a different way of expressing herself? That was key — not what the actual subject matter was, but how good the writing was.

How will you create a readership for the stories?

We will publish the winning and the shortlisted entries on our website once the winner is announced and hope to publish many of the longlisted entries, too.

The interviewer is a member of staff

The ZHR Writing Prize for Women can be accessed at www.zhrwritingprize.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 15th, 2019

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