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Interview: Rejuvenating the youth

December 23, 2012

Mehtab Akbar Rashidi is one of those personalities who have left an unforgettable impression on the minds of millions who watched her intellectually motivational shows and performances, not just on TV but also at many public forums and gatherings.

It was during Rashidi’s halcyon days of the ’70s and the ’80s that she, as Mehtab Channa, captivated her audiences and became a mentor of the youth with a queue of fans mounting after every coherent rendition.

What was it that gave her the charisma that she cherishes to this day? Well, to start with, she has an engrossing expression that blends perfectly with her personality. Secondly, the spontaneous connection that she makes with the audience with that gentle timbre in her voice, and lastly, it is the eloquent content of her conversations that is magnetic.

Born in Naudero, Sindh, Rashidi, is the youngest of the four sisters. She attributes her academic achievements and emancipation to her father, a devout teacher who believed in the education of girls despite the restrictive customs of the community. Hinting at gender discrimination in those days, she adds, “The education of my elder sisters had already opened the doors of literacy for me, though amidst reverberating criticism, which for some reason, never bothered me.”

Recollecting the domestic environment, she says, “We saw a lot of ethical values within our family where my father treated my mother with respect. He gave us plentiful affection and addressed us as Baba or Amma; a customary way to express love and respect for small children. He also used to call me Badr-un-Nisa.”

After completing her schooling, Rashidi taught for some time at the Saint Mary’s Convent in Hyderabad. She recalls, “I was just filling-in for a friend at the St. Mary’s in a classroom close to the Head Mistress’s office. Having overheard my intimate interaction with the kids, she walked up to me, and to my utter surprise, offered me a permanent job!” It was most certainly the affection that she demonstrated for the kids that set her afoot in the field of teaching.

After masters in political science from Sindh University, she continued her tenure at the international relations department where she won the Fulbright Scholarship for a master’s degree in international relations from the United States.

It was during her stay in the US that, she claims, she discovered herself. She recalls, “In the States, I began to perceive my dormant personal traits due to the self-help travails abroad. It made me feel stronger, more confident and well-informed because of the intense studies and the tours I took to foreign countries.”

To acquire the customs of foreigners, she opted for an American student from Boston, rather than somebody from the subcontinent. Responding to whether she faced any challenges, she says, “Unlike the practice in local universities, students in foreign countries have frequent interaction with tutors and peers. This was something I was not used to, hence, it became a challenge to read and research endlessly to afford a worthy dialogue with teachers and to tackle the nightmarish assignments.”

In February 1981, she got married to Akbar Rashidi, where late Benazir Bhutto was also present. The date which was chosen by Begum Bhutto bears historical significance because despite a guarded house arrest, she managed to make it to Lahore for an important convention.

Rashidi elaborates further, “Under the smoke screen of the news that Begum Bhutto would be attending Channa’s marriage, she donned a burqa, hid under a pile of clothes in a Volkswagon, reached the Cantt station, boarded the train to Lahore and joined the convention. We came to know about this a day after the marriage.” On the day of the marriage it was told that Begum Bhutto would not be attending, and instead would be sending her daughters.

When asked about her association with Benazir Bhutto, she responded, “When I was in Jamshoro, Benazir used to invite me to Karachi through Akbar’s younger brother Asfar, the secretary of Begum Bhutto who also attended to Benazir. Being wary of my position because of my job, I used to be let into 70 Clifton from the rear entrance.”

Benazir used to obtain information on various socio-political issues from Rashidi and always wanted to know more about the affairs and culture of Sindh. Owing to their intimacy, Benazir would occasionally stop over at Jamshoro to meet Rashidi while travelling to Larkana.

Apart from her jobs in private organisations, Rashidi has had an enviable track of appointments with the government. She was the first secretary culture and sports and youth affairs and later appointed as director general of environment. She also held the appointment of secretary education and culture and at the time of retirement, she was the secretary inter-provincial coordination.

Rashidi’s tenures with the government had their severe bureaucratic challenges. Lest we forget; it takes sizable guts and some true grit to stand formidably against the daunting political storms that she had weathered. With her firm belief, she proved that consistency of character would always be victorious regardless of the unbridled wrath of the self-appointed martinets and pseudo disciplinarians.

Ghost schools were a demon that Rashidi fought with an iron fist during her tenure in the education sector and brought them under control to a great degree. Later, once she was asked by the higher echelon for advice on reforms for education in the country. She explicitly suggested that to improve the government schools, it should be made mandatory for the government officers to send their children to these schools. Consequently, the discrepancies and defects in hundreds of schools that are defunct would get immediate attention of government officials.

With an overwhelming passion to set the youth on course, she says, “The youth of Pakistan bears an immense potential and I have full faith in the younger generation. We must trust them and should not abandon them at this sensitive juncture. They need our guidance and we must give it to them.”

“Only six per cent of the youth are making it to the university. There is a 35 per cent dropout rate, while 60 per cent of the girls abandon studies beyond the age of 16. For a developing country like ours that has such a large reservoir of talent, education is the only answer to its survival,” she dilates further.

Rashidi opines that in the backdrop of the ongoing socioeconomic and socio-political mayhem, the vibrant youth offers an excellent opportunity to envision a prosperous future.

Being a practical woman with a clear vision, she continued to apply her talent in the electronic and print media while concurrently conducting social welfare work with various organisations.

She is the vice president with the Rahnuma Family Planning Association of Pakistan. She has been the member and the President of Sindh Graduates’ Association and member of Professional Women’ Association. Rashidi was awarded the President’s Pride of Performance in 2004.

She has also been the executive director of I-Television Network that airs Masala, HUM, Style 360 and Oye, a job she relinquished recently to evaluate an assignment related to the development of education in Sindh.

Responding to her likes and dislikes, she says, “I take pleasure in talking to people, especially when they get engrossed and become responsive. Reading books is like a part of my biological clock. Travelling being my fetish, I usually fetch half a dozen books at airport shops. In food, my favourite duo is fried potatoes and rice. I like to dress well but I dislike showing off.” Her singular obsession in life is her family which takes priority over everything else.

She has two sons; Rafay who is married and Sohaib who has recently graduated with distinction. Rashidi and her husband have been actively pursuing the establishment of schools by donating land to the government in their village Shah Abad Pir jo Goth close to Larkana. They are currently contemplating hospitals and veterinaries, which are urgently needed in the area. Rashidi also enjoys writing and is currently contributing columns for a Sindhi journal. With so many diverse experiences on her portfolio, she also plans to write a biography soon.