In my last article I was stopped in my tracks from writing about the potential value of engaging females in the development of Pakistan, by two things. First, the half term holidays meant I could not attend the ladies tea laid out by the British Pakistan Foundation, and second Baroness Warsi, who was at the said tea and had rattled my cage about militant secularism ... so I strayed and ranted.
This week I caught up with Suniya Qureshi, the Executive Director of the British Pakistan Foundation to talk matters through. I have known Suniya for a while now, and as with many women, she has quiet, gentle knowledge – the diversity of which bowls me over every time I speak to her.
When we first met she told me of her wealth of experience in the civil service. Next, I heard about her enthusiastic plans for the British Pakistan Foundation. Months later, she shared with me her journey from writing a story about her family, to becoming a playwright – putting shows on in London’s West End and helping to form her own production company. This time, perhaps a little cynical from my bout with Warsi, I asked her about the role she thought women could play in Pakistan. I had in my mind a rather disconnected handful of Darjeeling-drinking darlings, scoffing scones and clotted cream at the House of Lords.
But according to Suniya over 80 women attended the tea. They were from all sectors and all ages, and despite a diverse range of backgrounds, Suniya claimed there was an unusual, but real "sense of sisterhood in the room". The good Baroness, I'll concede appeared to have given a rousing, inspiring speech, as no doubt did Suniya herself. They discussed what it meant being a British Pakistani woman, overcoming obstacles, making the most of opportunities, and the need to be more collaborative as a group.
Listening to Suniya’s good words about Warsi, my mind wandered to another political female with whom I have a love-hate relationship. Only this week had I been quoting Hilary Clinton in a lecture at London Metropolitan University. Last year Clinton hosted a Global Diaspora Forum – aimed at addressing the 60 million Americans from first or second generation members of the diaspora community. She spoke of the “potential” of diaspora coalitions – even naming the American Pakistan Foundation and claiming that using people-to-people exchanges is “the core of smart power”. I agree, but feel slightly unnerved by state sponsorship of such initiatives, even if strategic aims are in common. The British Pakistan Foundation – a brainchild of Foreign Ministers Milliband and Qureshi – was deliberately styled to be entirely autonomous from government – even to such an extent that it is able to lobby on policy. Perhaps, it’s important to say here that the BFP receives no government funding.
Those in Pakistan may snort their distaste at this apparent group of elites hobnobbing with nobility in London, but the diaspora now pack a punch. Suniya explained – with the 20th amendment, Pakistanis living abroad now have voting rights; many are passionate about change; have influence in lobbying for change; and are mobilising themselves.
Suniya’s story is not unusual. She grew up in London and Lahore – spending her teenage years in the latter. "It was during Haq’s time" she explains, "there was censorship, no magazines, TV, music, everything was censored!" But she goes on to say that whatever the situation is in Pakistan, the people never fail to be incredible.
Another motivated and inspired woman speaker at the BFP event was Ahmereen Reza, from perhaps one of my favourite charities Developments in Literacy Trust – or DIL as it is better known. DIL has been very successful in providing education, especially to girls, across Pakistan – as some of their stories illustrate.
Suniya explained that DIL is just one of the five charities which the BPF support. The others being Friends of the Citizens Foundation, Care Pakistan, The Rural Support Programme and UNICEF. Her passion for change was clear, and women, Suniya feels, can be part of this:
"Women can contribute beyond the home. In Pakistan, women are in the fields, looking after cattle ... urban women often have to go out to work now also. It's time to culturally acknowledge that women are 50 per cent of the workforce – there to contribute and invest in".
Comparing Pakistan with progress on equality and empowerment in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Suniya claims Pakistan lags woefully behind.
I pointed out to Suniya that I had been impressed with Pakistan gender equality in terms of its number of female lawyers, judges and politicians. In fact, I had felt uncomfortable raising gender as a Brit, because of our own very poor gender balance in politics. "Yes, Pakistan is better than the UK higher up – we even had the first ever female Muslim head of state, but it's lower down that the gender equality is worse than Britain, and worse than other south Asian countries".
I asked what the BPF was specifically doing about this, and Suniya gently reminded me of the commitment to the charities. I had a flash-back to the launch of the organisation I attended back in 2010 – in one evening a generous guest list raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for flood relief. It reminded me again, not to overlook the elite in favour of grassroots when it comes to change! The BPF are also planning road-shows in Birmingham, Manchester and Bradford this year. I was also delighted to hear that the BPF now have three women on the Board – there have been moments in its short life when there were none.
Given the Warsi piece, I couldn't resist asking whether the BPF had any religious or political affiliation. I didn’t use the word militant, but wanted to know if they were secular. Having been involved in the creation of the organisation from the outset, I was delighted to hear they held no biases. It’s difficult to find a Pakistani without some political affiliation, I suggested cheekily. Suniya assured me that although they had received criticism in the UK for being pro-conservative, this was simply because they were the current government and policy makers, so more time was spent with them. She added, we support Imran Khan’s charities, but not his politics.
So I return to Warsi’s words. I am delighted she supports the British Pakistan Foundation. Being secular and A-political is one of the biggest challenges for modern Pakistanis. The BFP does a fine job.
Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found on www.jaine.info and facebook.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.