Celebrating the Women of Pakistan

Editor’s Note: My sister Azra has kindly given us permission to publish remarks that she delivered to The Citizen’s Foundation gala in Houston a few days ago. She will provide translations of the Urdu poetry soon.

by Azra Raza

ScreenHunter_2670 Apr. 17 11.09Thank you Dr. Abdullah Jafari, thank you TCF, thank you Houston for giving me this opportunity to speak tonight. I am greatly honored. This evening, we are going to celebrate the women of Pakistan.

In the 1930s of Aligarh, my mother was sent to Merath for a vacation. She was barely ten years old. In Meerath, she became homesick in the house of her relatives. A few weeks later, she learnt that her father would be visiting a nearby town so she wrote begging her mother that her father should take her home to Aligarh when he returned. This one simple act of letter writing caused a major upheaval in Aijaz Manzil because the first thing my Naana wanted to know was how Naani Amman found out about Ammi’s unhappiness. Naani Amman had to produce the letter which was examined carefully. My Naana was scandalized by the idea that his daughter had secretly learned to read and write, an activity considered subversive and dangerous. While a good head and a good heart in a woman was a desirable combination, adding a pen to that was tantamount to outright rebellion.

I remembered this story because when my own daughter Sheherzad was ten years old and I asked her one day what she would do if she won the lottery and had millions of dollars, her instantaneous and forceful response was, “Finish my education, of course!” What a contrast between two 10-year olds separated by one single generation. Sheherzad did not have to think twice about her education because of the sacrifices made by my mother and by the women of her generation in the pre-partition subcontinent. So if we are going to celebrate the women of Pakistan, let us begin with the pioneers. Ms. Fatima Jinnah and Begum Rana Liaqat Ali Khan, Lady Haroon and Begum Shaista Ikramullah. My mother became deeply involved in women’s education in Karachi and through her tireless efforts, managed to provide for both primary and higher education to hundreds of underprivileged students. When she died 15 years ago, my epitaph for her was the famous Faiz sher:

Karo kaj jabeen pay sar e kafan
Meray qaatiloun ko gumaan na ho
Kay ghuroor e ishq ka baankpan
Pas e marg ham nay bhula diya!


(Keep the shroud tilted on my forehead as a sign of defiance and pride. Let not my assassins have the misapprehension that in death, they succeeded in crushing the honor and pride I took in my passions).

The first University open to women was in Bombay in 1882 while Harvard Medical School admitted women for the first time in 1945. As far as Pakistan is concerned, let us do a little math. The population is roughly 186 million. There are 296,832 students enrolled in degree level education which comes to 0.1% population. Despite these dire statistics, the good news is that 62% of them are women and the level of achievement of girls is consistently higher than that of the boys. Girls outclass boys in examination, and they are also higher achievers. And yet, when it comes to the work-force, their efforts are not rewarded equally. I was horrified to hear the goal announced at the International Women’s Conference last year: 50-50 by 2030 meaning equal pay by 2030. Why?

Women don’t need to be championed and revered; they need to be treated as equal. In my opinion, women should be getting paid more than men because they are always multi-tasking, doing two jobs at least. They should be paid more because they are superior in most ways that matter today; they are fundamentally caring, yet pragmatic, cooperative yet competitive, skilled in navigating through complex negotiations without entangling egos and exceptionally charming and skillful in getting the best out of people. They are builders not destroyers, and most importantly, they are not distracted by impulses of violence.

A great nation is not founded on the battlefields but on the countless seemingly unattractive jobs performed by its underpaid, disrespected, overworked citizens just as much as by its intellectuals and artists, its thinkers and leaders. Here again, we see the role of lower middle class women of Pakistan providing the infrastructure for the country through critical teaching, nursing, factory worker and clerical jobs. These harried women who don’t have the luxury to complain, they work at home and they step out for thankless jobs which sap their energies, claim their health, age them prematurely and subject them to a thousand indignities a day. These young girls, engaged in timeless routines common to all women everywhere, become wives and mothers, face impossible odds but continue to function with impossible grace. These women have an undefined and unacknowledged courage. This lonely courage is not the kind that can be added to a CV or win them gold medals; but theirs is the kind of valor to which nations should dedicate monuments.

We were visiting my mother in Karachi once when Sheherzad was 6 years old and she wanted to take all her little friends to the newly opened McDonald on Tariq Road. Zehra, the 10 years old daughter of the cook was given some chore by her mother at the last minute and could not come with us so we brought back a Happy Meal for her. The next day, when Sheherzad asked her if she enjoyed the meal, an utterly delighted and perfectly content Zehra, responded: Of course I have not eaten it yet! I have been saving it so I can look at it. I even got up twice last night to look at it.

My friend Sara Suleri told me recently about her housekeeper Halima in Lahore who lost a 6 years old son to a common infectious disease. When she delivered a second son a few years later and Sara congratulated her, Halima’s impassive response was, Bibiji, I don’t know if I should celebrate or start grieving already.

These fragile women shackled to bodies doomed to be violated, used and thoughtlessly discarded, captives of harsh, unyielding battering blows of poverty and want. These women who cannot heal the misfortunes that assail their bodies, still manage to prove their grit by showing us how their souls respond to the struggles they face. And they respond by accepting their fate and they continue to work and smile and maintain their dignity through thick and thin. That is heroism. Let us celebrate the unacknowledged, quiet nobility of our unsung heroines, the Zehras and Halimas of Pakistan, through the words of Saghir Nizami who was ravished by the astounding beauty of a young bhikaran at Aligarh’s railway station:

Aah bhikaran, wah bhikara
Dekh idhar lillah bhikaran!
Mailay Mailay gaaloun wali
Uljhay uljhay baloun wali
Wu deewani qismat waali
Wu shahani soorat wali
Kaisa zewar kiska gehna
Oo saada fitrat kya kehna
Sar mein gard aur khaak badan par
Maila maila kurta tan par
Yay teri noorani surat
Yay chehray par gard or hasrat
Baal naheen mohtaj e shaana
Surma aankhoun se begaana
Mehndi se hay paak hathaili
Jab chaaha angrai lai li
So gai jub neend aankh mein aai
Uth baithi lekar angrai
Jo kuch miljai khaa laina
Chupkay chupkay kuch ga laina
Uff ray teri shan e tawakkaul
Ye sin yay saaman e tawakkul
Dekh kay dil bhar aaya mera
Aa mein bhar doun kaasa tera
Loot lay jitna loota jaayay
Maang lay jo kuch maanga jaayay
Di lay lay eemaan bhi lay lay
Jee chaahay to jaan bhi lay lay
Ban ja bazm e dil ki raani
Iss dunya mein kar sultaani
Mein tera jogi ban jaoon
Surat e sael bun kar aoon
Tujh se maangoun bheek sukoun ki
Ho jayay taskeen junoon ki
Saaghir tera saqi tera
Tu meri aur baaqi tera!

Recently, I was introducing a famous speaker at Grand Rounds at Columbia University. This happened to be International Women’s Day. I began by speaking to the women directly. My message came from Frederick Douglas, the courageous Black slave who fought for his freedom. He says in his auto-biography: I prayed for twenty years and nothing happened until I prayed with my legs. Either women succumb to the bitterness of despair or let loose their wings and fight for their rights every day. Thankfully, there are people and organizations dedicated to helping them. Just look the incredible work that The Citizens Foundation is doing. Thank you TCF and thanks to all of you for your generosity in opening up your pockets and sharing your good fortunes with TCF. But you know one thing which is definitely more precious than money is time. I ask you, no matter how busy you are, to take out some hours from your busy lives to engage in activities that help women and will bring a smile on the faces of little girls going to school under horrific conditions. Can you help Abdullah and Anjum Jafri with investment of your time, your intellectual input, your emotional and moral support?

For example, you can teach young girls around you, your daughters and your friends and families’ daughters to speak up and to reject humiliating and sexist remarks and demand dignity. Teach them not to be pressured to hide or change their authentic selves. Teach them to stop anyone trying to dampen the bright spark of their potential. Teach them not to sacrifice their just ambitions and to express their feelings fearlessly. Teach them to be assertive when needed and to set boundaries when needed. Teach them to embrace their gender identity and to have the courage to take on leadership roles. And then: Ask not what you can do for women. See what women will do for you!

And now, let us cheer and celebrate the doers, the accomplished women of Pakistan living and working outside of Pakistan, the women in this room…all of you. Much to her annoyance, I often remind Sheherzad that if her generation is doing well in America, it is not a surprise because they have been born and raised in the system, attending private schools and Ivy League colleges. It is the immigrant women who came to a foreign land, leaving the securities of home and hearth behind, and faced real competition from the people raised within the system. Whether they are home-makers or professional women, they proved their mettle, showing spunk and determination, courage and fortitude. What area or discipline has remained un-dominated by these astonishing women possessing giant sized talents that managed to out-perform every obstacle and outclass every hurdle?

Tu Falatoon o Arastoo hay tu Zohra Parveen
Teray qabzay mein hay gurdoon teri thokar mein zameen
Haan utha, jald utha, pa e muqaddar se jabeen
Mein bhi ruknay ka naheen waqt bhi ruknay ka naheen
Larkharda ai gi kahaan tak kay sanbhalna hay tujhey
Uth meri jaan, meray saath he chalna hay tujhe!

And finally, the internationally acknowledged heroines from Pakistan who would raise the stature of any nation anywhere on earth, who represent the best of the best and would be proclaimed as such from the rooftops of every corner in the world. Their art and creativity, their dedication and their energy and their commitment are nothing short of miraculous. They made sacrifices, faced personal dangers, stood up to men and bullets and even gave their lives for their principles, their art, their passion. Their talents so outstrip the norm that they rule in their respective areas as unquestioned queens…they have taken the world stage by a storm. The list is endless but let me name a few…Politics? Benazir Bhutto and Sabeen Mehmood, Asma Jahangir and Malala Yusufzai. The UN? Nafis Sadiq and Maleeha Lodhi. Her Excellency Aisha Farooqi, the Consul General of Pakistan in Houston is present in the audience and deserves a big hand of applause for her many services to the women of Pakistan. Writers? Zaheda Hina and Bajia, Kishwer Nahid and Parveen Shakir, Fehmida Riyaz and Bano Qudsia, Bapsi Sidhwa and Sara Suleri, Fatima Bhutto and Kamila Shamsi. Music? Madam Noorjehan and Farida Khanum, Mukhtar Begum and Iqbal Bano, Abida Parveen and Tina Saani, Noor Zehra Kazim and Sanam Marvi. Film? Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Mehreen Jabbar. Arts? Shahzia Sikander and Zubaida Agha, Saleema Hashmi and Sughra Raza, Shehrzad Alam and Noorjehan Bilgrami. Sports? Rabia Ashiq and Syeda Mahpara. Physics? Tasneem Zehra Hussain and Nargis Mavalval. Oncology? Shakila Parveen and Shagufta Naqvi, Aziza Shad and Seema Khan, Uzma Iqbal and Zeba Aziz. We salute the breathtaking accomplishments of these magnificent women…Pakistani Women, ZINDABAD!

Let us end with my friend and the great Urdu poet, Fehmida Riyaz, whose words issued a clarion call to all women of Pakistan:

Kuch log tumhain samjhain gay
Wu tumko khauf dilayangay
Jo hay wu bhi kho sakta hay
Is raah mein rahzan hain itnay
Kutch aur yahaan ho sakta hay
Kutch aur tu aksar hota hay
Par tum jiss lamhay mein zinda ho
Yay lamha tum se zinda hai
Yay waqt naheen phir aayay ga
Tum apni karni kar guzro
Jo hoga dekha jayay ga!