To be confident and assertive despite the odds
By Moomal Shunaid
KARACHI: Women, allegedly the weaker sex, must make a special effort to prove themselves in this male-dominated world. Many have achieved recognition and respect in their fields and are examples for those still struggling to make a mark.
The Aga Khan University held a seminar to celebrate International Women’s Day on Monday. The topic of the seminar was ‘How You Reached Where You Are Today’. The speakers were Sindh Information secretary Mahtab Akbar Rashdi, Anita Ghulam Ali, Khushbakht Shujaat, popular writer Hasina Moin, Talat Tyabji, the marketing and public affairs director of Aga Khan University, and Dr Yasmin Amarsy, dean of the Aga Khan School of Nursing. Sania Saeed, the moderator, started off by asking the speakers to introduce themselves.
Ms Rashdi née Channa belongs to a Hyderabad family of four sisters and a brother. She received her basic education from there and went on to do a Masters in political science. She taught international relations and later went abroad on a Fulbright scholarship.
“When I was born my mother fell ill at the thought of another daughter, but not my father. He took care that we sisters were highly educated. In fact, my grandmother suggested that he marry again since he didn’t have any sons, but he said my daughters are like my sons. And I think that we, as women are more sensitive, serious in attending and solving issues.”
Ms Ali was born in Karachi. Her father, a judge, was transferred far and wide, as a result of which she and her five siblings studied in Nawabshah, Hyderabad, Sukkur and Karachi. Later on, she joined DJ Science College but was not really fond of studies. A sports enthusiast, she was more interested in athletics. Nevertheless, she did do her MSc in microbiology and was appointed lecturer in SM Science College. “Suddenly I realized that my not giving importance to education was wrong. Education is everything in life.” She actively participated in union activities from 1961 to 1985. For a long time she was an English newsreader on Radio Pakistan, when news was broadcast from the Karachi station.
In 1985, then-chief minister Muzaffar Hussain Shah, the present speaker of the Sindh Assembly, made her managing director of the Teachers Foundation. In 1992, Ms Ali started work for the now prestigious Sindh Education Foundation. She was the first woman minister to be appointed by the Musharraf government in 1999. “When President Musharraf asked me if I wanted to be a federal minister, I declined... I wanted to be a provincial minister with power, to be able to do something for my people. I was education minister until 2002. I resigned because I was not prepared to participate in the election process the government had planned to make the election more comfortable for themselves.”
Ms Shujaat said she too had not been much for studies. The youngest in a family of five, she was a voracious reader. She started debating in school and wanted to become a doctor, but due to inadequate marks that dream didn’t come true. She did her Masters in journalism and was judged best speaker in her college and university days. She started compering the radio programme, Bazm-e-Talaba and got introduced in the Zia Moheyuddin Show. Another popular programme, Firozan, followed. “I got married during my studies. My father-in-law encouraged me to continue work on TV. I enjoyed and learnt a great deal from some of my programmes, especially Chehray, which was about the independence movement. But then neither my father nor my husband allowed me to work. The desire to work grew in me and now by the grace of God I am running my own school. My parents and teachers have played a big role in shaping my personality. And I am the first woman vice president of the Arts Council in 40 years.”
Ms Moin referred to herself as a “side dish” after listening to all the commendations of the previous speakers. “I am a product of a loving family.” Ms Moin used to go with her elder sister to school and loved studying. “My father loved his daughters. We were four daughters and he would distribute sweets every time a daughter was born.” She was also lucky to have the guidance of good teachers. “I started writing in college because I wanted to bring some laughter in people’s lives. My first play was for Radio Pakistan, which won an award. Then I wrote for ‘Studio No 9’, and that’s how I started writing professionally.”
Ms Saeed said she didn’t think many men could boast of doing so many things simultaneously as women are doing, being workers, wives, mothers and homemakers all in one.
“Were you ever treated differently because of your sex?” Ms Saeed asked the speakers.
Ms Tyabji said, “I never faced any difficulty. In fact, I got a lot of encouragement.”
But Mrs Amarsy recalled: “I felt very insulted when once I participated in a discussion about cricket and the men looked as if they could not believe a woman could do something as intelligent as talk about cricket. A woman constantly has to prove and to justify herself. She has to work hard, show perseverance and be able to stand up to men to get recognition and respect.”
Ms Rashdi was asked if the men she worked with ever faced a problem taking orders from a female?
“If they ever did, it’s their problem, not mine,” she said laughing.
“Do men take you seriously?”
“They have to.” Ms Rashdi responded. “To reach a certain point in life, you have to prove yourself. In the departments of culture, environment and women’s development where I was posted, I was criticized as being a non-technical person for the environment department. But I was there for six years and in the end no one could say I was the wrong person for the job.”
At this, Anita Ghulam Ali chimed in: “And the person who came after you was a brigadier in the Army.”
“How come there was no opposition to women working in the olden days?” Ms Ali was asked.
“In my family women played a dominant role. A family builds up your character and your outlook on life. The way you are brought up makes you tolerant of other people. The weak always suffer. The trick is that you be confident and assertive, and yet try to make the other person comfortable. I can say without being arrogant that there are few men who will compete with me. There is no competition between men and women. Women of India and Pakistan like Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi are prime examples.”
Dr Amarsy added, “A woman needs to be abreast of what’s happening in her country. She should read newspapers so that she is able to participate in any discussion without feeling like an outsider. Teamwork is important for us, after one stage the male-female difference diminishes. We should work for women so that more can reach a stage where we all are today.”
The ladies present also discussed sexual harassment and the implications it has on the female psyche. “In government service, girls who come in the position of clerks and secretaries have to face sexual harassment,” said Ms Ali. “I have reported this matter in the cabinet. The Tughlaq House has five floors and only on one floor is there a bathroom for women. We have to struggle for small things such as a bathroom. The government is insensitive to such issues.” “People look upon you as role models. What was the reaction of your husbands when you got married?”
Dr Amarsy said, “I have been married for 30 years. I completed my studies after marriage. When I was offered the job of director I asked my husband what he thought, because the job entailed working fourteen, sometimes twenty hours a day. There is constant struggle for a woman. If she’s not paying enough attention to her children and they lack in studies, it is the mother’s fault, although both the parents are responsible for bringing up a child.”