Azra Raza honored at the annual DIL Gala

ScreenHunter_2341 Nov. 02 16.58Congratulations to my sister Azra!

From the event invitation:

We would like to extend to you a warm invitation to Developments in Literacy’s 2016 Gala. The event will be held on Friday, October 28th, 2016 at Cipriani on 42nd in New York, honoring our Chief Guest, Dr. Azra Raza. We are honored that Dr. Raza has chosen to support DIL’s mission in educating and empowering underprivileged children in Pakistan.

Developments in Literacy (DIL) is a section 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that was launched in 1998. DIL has educated more than 23,000 students at 124 schools situated in some of the most underserved regions of Pakistan. DIL provides high quality teacher training; innovative, low cost teaching resources and maintains strong relationships with school communities. DIL has been awarded a prestigious 4-star rating for 6 years in a row by Charity Navigator. DIL’s work was recently highlighted in USAID’s Frontline Magazine, calling the Mobile Learning Project a “game changer” in educating teachers in inaccessible, remote areas of the country through videos delivered on their mobile phones.

Previous honorees include Christiane Amanpour, Ted Turner, Nicholas Kristof, Mira Nair, Nandita Das, Maleeha Lodhi and Shahzia Sikander. Below is Azra’s acceptance speech.

by Azra Raza

Thank you Shaila, thank you DIL. I am deeply, deeply honored.

When my daughter Sheherzad was 5, she came home after the first week of kindergarten and announced to us, “I am just wasting my time. I can’t read. I can’t write. And they won’t let me talk.” Well, we told her, this pretty much summarizes the state of most girls all over the world. They can’t read, they can’t write and they are not allowed to speak.

I am a scientist, but we called my mother a Rocket Scientist. Her life epitomized the prevailing ethos and traditions of a sharifzadi being raised in the Aligarh of 1930s where high culture was defined by an attitude of extreme gentleness…particularly, in the men, overt hyper-masculinity was tantamount to hyper-vulgarity. Sadly, it was also a time when older women in the family had to smuggle a female tutor to enter the zanan-khana secretly to teach the young girls how to read and write. Basically, my very gentle and civilized grandfather’s attitude was why should the girls be taught to read and write? So they can shake hands with the English men?

After the death of the family patriarch, as the British tightened their hold over the natives, my mother’s family suddenly found themselves bereft of their possessions and with no practical skills to survive. For my mother, this traumatic experience underscored the importance of education as the only means of individual empowerment and thus ignited an intense desire in her to educate not only her own children, especially the girls, but to fight hard for the education of all the children in her community.

I remember one evening last year when I was telling some friends about my mother and how she taught everyone around her to read and write. So much so that our driver who was from the North West Frontier Provinces not only became literate, started reading the Urdu newspapers religiously but then became so obsessed with the written word that he ended up writing his autobiography. When I told this story, one of my unnamed and very famous writer friends responded, “Azra, what else would a driver write but an AUTO-biography? And now I have the name of his next book: BUS!!” [Editor’s note: “bus” means “enough” in Urdu, and “dil” means “heart”.]

This is why we called my mother a Rocket Scientist…you see, teaching others how to read IS rocket science. She and the pioneering women of her generation are the ones who deserve today’s honor and I am proud to accept it on their behalf. I am here because of those women. Education became my mother’s lifelong passion:

Nazzare Ko tu Junbish-e-Mixzgan Bhi Baar Hai
Nargis Ki Aankh Se Tujhe Dekha Kare Koi

Even the blinking of the eyelash is unwelcome when the sight is fixated upon the object of desire
With the eye of the Narcissus should one see the beloved

Today, we are living in anxiety-ridden, Islamophobic, immigrant-wary, uncertain, unpredictable, dangerous, and very very unstable times. The world seems to be hurtling itself towards entropy. Questions at the heart of the human condition which we thought were settled centuries ago; issues as fundamental as: facts matter, truth is important, respect for each other is at the core of human values are being challenged. Worst still, we seem to have lost an essential optimism about the future. Everyone has their own pet apocalyptic forecast for a gloomy future. I am here to say otherwise: Let us use this volatile situation as a transformative moment, a wake-up call, an opportunity to re-examine our situation. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

The challenge facing us today is this: How do we reconcile our stone age, Paleolithic emotions and our outdated medieval institutions with the God-like technology we have developed for cutting and pasting the human genome and the nuclear weapons. In this question lies the existential threat facing us. We are afraid. We are apprehensive. We don’t know what to expect.

My answer starts with a great book of fiction. There is a very beautiful anecdote in Don Quixote where a young boy is punished by being told to go to prison to sleep off his cheekiness. The lad replies that he can be sent to prison and put in chains but no one has the power to make him sleep: staying awake or not is his decision. Indeed. Of all the greatness we aspire to, by far freedom is the greatest. Freedom gives us a choice. At every step we take in our lives, we have a choice. Today, we can choose to succumb to despair and cynicism but losing heart is the most dangerous thing. Or we can decide that we must overcome. And my friends, the first step out of this imbroglio is to stop empowering our leaders and start empowering ourselves. Education is the essential first step towards this empowerment. Empowerment of individuals is possible as proved by the diverse set of people in this room, Muslims, Christians, Jews. Above all, I am deeply moved by the support of our Indian friends. Even as our two countries are at daggers drawn, benefactors like Asha Motwani, Ila and Dinesh Paliwal, Ruchira Gupta and so many others have defied the call of the leaders to boycott all things Pakistani. Instead of empowering the leaders, they are here to empower little girls in Pakistan through education. Bravo!

But is guaranteeing primary or , for that matter, even higher education enough? From the 1930s of my mother’s days in Aligarh to the present generation of Sheherzad growing up in New York, we have come a long way. Sadly, acquiring education has not proved to be enough and now, I want to take you one step further and define how these very gains have paved the way for disturbing fresh enslavements.

Being a scientist, I want to illustrate the situation with an example from evolutionary biology. With few exceptions, humans are the only animal species where the female pretties herself; it is the women who are trying to look beautiful. Take the classic example of the peacock. It has a staggeringly ornamental tail which can be a handicap when it comes to physical combat, but it is essential because with that flamboyant, glitzy, showy, decorative tail, the male peacock is asking for the hand of the peahen by transmitting a message of strong genes. You see, in all other animals, the choice of a mate rests with the female and esthetic beauty, by declaring freedom from disease, serves as a potential indicator for healthy progeny. The peahen chooses the peacock with the most ornate tail. What about men? Well, there are only three categories of men; the handsome, the rich, and the great majority. The handsome don’t need much else, the rich possess the ultimate aphrodisiac for women; resources that guarantee the survival of her children. But in order to appear attractive, the great majority have had to substitute the natural attributes with acquired skills; displays of intellect like being a professional, a lawyer, scientist, doctor or engineer, abstract talents like music, art, philosophy. And selfishly, men have monopolized these areas by disenfranchising half the human race from even having the opportunity to acquire the skills until recently forcing women to be judged solely on the basis of their natural beauty and even that beauty as defined by the males.

Another form of enslavement is envy, the driving spirit of our capitalist society, where the pursuit of acquisitions is motivated not by any real need but by a desire to appear better than others. So here’s the rub. If men and women acquire the same skills, women start getting equal pay and don’t necessarily seek resources in a mate, while men are forced to look beyond a woman’s body, then what should we find attractive about each other: that your partner has a bigger house or a bigger heart? That they give more lavish parties or show their deep love for you through friendship? That they relish bank accounts or their books?

When I arrived in America as a 23 year old immigrant, I found a warm and welcoming home here. For the first time, I understood the meaning of what Immanuel Kant said, “Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as a stranger”. It is because of this spirit of hospitality in America that I can say to Sheherzad and the younger generation gathered in this room today, do NOT give in to the darkness being forecast in your future, instead, live up to the uniquely generous spirit of this country. Be aware that “In this theater of our life, it is reserved only for God and for angels to be lookers-on.” It is essential for you to become active. Your education will be entirely wasted unless you make sure that others are also educated, and that all of us, men AND women, forcefully reject this second enslavement of competition and envy which has crept upon us.

One of my favorite writers is Annie Dillard who won the Pulitzer Prize for her incredibly beautiful book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I was listening to her being interviewed on NPR recently. Melissa Block asked her how she chose the name of her latest collection of essays titled The Abundance. Ms. Dillard replied that over the last few decades, she has been collecting interesting sayings in her journal, and there is a line in the Quran which she found particularly beautiful and which forms the basis of the title. “They will question thee concerning what they should expend. Say the abundance”. Give it all away. If you spend, you will fill up from behind. Empty it. The reference here is not just to money and material goods but the real appeal is for you to give of yourself. You have already given money to DIL, now what about investing your time in helping Shaila and Fizza, Ammara and Fazle. Develop a capacious-self, and visit one of DIL’s schools on your next trip back home. Spend a few hours with those young school girls in remote villages, give them hope, bring a smile to their faces as they sit shackled in horrifying social chains. Labor to be more compassionate, offer the exiled a home. The abundance! Give with abundance. Refuse the yoke of material success and choose higher ethical values of empathy, compassion, generosity, altruism and LOVE. We cannot risk having another lunatic come this close to blowing up our world and our core values, our dignity and our self-respect. I say to you that the time has come for you to reject all ugliness and strive for beauty. Use your intelligence, your talents, your singular status, your influence, your positions of privilege to once and for all, shatter the artificial borders and finally enable each person to be able to say, I can read, I can write, I have a voice. I can talk!

Listen to Shaila’s DIL. Listen to your DIL. And if your DIL tells you to do one thing but your reason says otherwise, then remember:

Aql o Dil apni apni kahain jab Khumar

Aql ki sunyay, dil ka kaha keejyay!

When the mind and heart give opposing messages

Listen to the mind, but do what your DIL tells you

What should you expend? Spend it all. And if others try to scare you, then listen to Fahmida Riaz’s message:

Kuch log tumhay samjhaingay
Wu tum ko khauf dilayangay
Jo hay wu bhi kho sakta hay
Iss raah mein rahzan hain itnay
Kuch aur yahaan ho sakta hay
Kuch aur tu aksar hota hay
Tum jiss lamhay mein zinda ho
Yay lamha tum say zinda hay
Yay waqt naheen phir aayay ga
Tum apni karni kar guzro
Jo hoga dekha jayay ga!!

Some will try to counsel you
They will try to scare you
Even what you have now can be lost forever
There are so many robbers on this path
Something else can happen
‘Something else’ frequently happens
But this moment in which you are alive
Is alive because of you
This time will never come again
Do what you have to do
We will deal with whatever comes later)

Translations from Urdu by Azra Raza.


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Bio of Azra Raza from the DIL Award invitation:

Dr. Azra Raza is Professor of Medicine and Director of the MDS Center at Columbia University in New York. Previously, she was the Chief of Hematology Oncology and the Gladys Smith Martin Professor of Oncology at the University of Massachusetts. She is considered an international authority on pre-leukemia (MDS) and acute leukemia and is one of those rare physician-scientists who divide their time equally between caring for patients and supervising a state-of- the-art basic research lab which is well-funded by multiple large grants. Dr. Raza started collecting blood and marrow samples on her patients in 1984 and now her Tissue Bank, the largest and oldest in the country with >60,000 samples, is considered a unique national treasure. She is a sought after speaker in scientific circles and the recipient of numerous awards including The Hope Award in Cancer Research 2012 (shared with the Nobel Laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn). She was named as one of the 100 Women Who Matter by Newsweek Pakistan.
Dr. Raza is a member of the Founder Group designing Breakthrough Developments in Science and Technology with President Bill Clinton and met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the Cancer Moonshot initiative at his residence at the Naval Observatory in 2015. In addition to her scientific accomplishments, Dr. Raza is a dedicated reader of Urdu literature, the co-author of GHALIB: Epistemologies of Elegance, and the owner of more than 10,000 books. She founded Urdu Mehfil in 1986 as a meeting point for local Urdu aficionados and has hosted great writers and poets regularly including Qurratulain Hyder, John Elia, Zaheda Hina, Ahmed Faraz, Fehmida Riyaz and others. She is reputed to have committed to memory, thousands of verses of poetry in Urdu, English, Punjabi and Persian and she has hosted regular soirees at her home introducing authors, singers, activists and community leaders in every city she has lived in over the last three decades.
More than twenty years ago, Dr. Raza established the Azra Raza Scholarship Award which is a cash prize to given annually to the topmost girls in the Sciences and in Urdu Literature and humanities at her alma mater, FC College for Girls in Islamabad. Dr. Raza believes that the best way to “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world” is by promoting and publicizing the achievements of humanity in science, art, and literature. She was married to the late Harvey D. Preisler, Director, Rush University Cancer Center in Chicago and has a daughter Sheherzad Raza Preisler who also lives in Manhattan.