By Jo Slack - Marketing Manager Culture and Development, British Council
Amneh Shaikh Farooqui, Maheen Zia and Dr Yasmin Qazi are three women with diverse backgrounds ranging from medicine to filmmaking. Although it is unusual for them to cross paths in working environments, they have been brought together in a professional capacity for WOW Karachi where they have each taken an active role in the festival, either as a curator or through community consultations.
This year, the three women travelled to London together on invitation from the British Council to visit WOW’s birthplace, and attend the ninth iteration of the festival here. As a partner for WOW Festivals around the world, the British Council also invited a delegation of curators from Bangladesh, Nepal, Brazil and Turkey to take part in this year’s WOW London Festival. Bringing together a diverse group of women from across South Asia created an opportunity to strengthen the WOW global network, exchange on different contexts and topics, and share ideas and ambitions for future iterations of the festival. I sat down with these three women from Pakistan to talk about these two very different societies, and what it means to be involved in the Women of the World festivals.
Dr Yasmin Qazi, a women’s health activist tells me that Pakistan has ‘one of the worst indicators for reproductive health in South Asia’. She believes that cultural programmes need to integrate women’s health and reproductive needs and she is working with some of WOW Karachi’s sponsor organisations to do so. ‘These issues get left at the wayside but they are vital to female empowerment. That is the lens I am bringing to WOW’.
One thing that all three of the women can agree on is funding. Amneh Farooqui works on economic empowerment initiatives, and Maheen Zia is a documentary filmmaker. Through her work with donors, Dr Qazi understands the impact that funding can have on individual projects such as Amneh and Maheen’s. Dr Qazi is trying to get the donors she works with to commit to more longterm funding. Amneh who has been working in the non-profit sector for the last 15 years agrees this is key to addressing the big issues affecting women and girls in Pakistan:
‘Long-term programme funding frees up activists and leaders to focus on their core work instead of hustling for the cash to survive. That’s a big issue for the (not-for-profit) sector in Pakistan, because funding is drying up and as a result, many organisations are forced to steer their agenda towards where the money is, as opposed to what they really want to do. If you can get that kind of long-term vision from the donor, it’s immense, it’s probably the biggest thing the donors can do for a movement or any kind of work in the sector.’
Long-term programme funding frees up activists and leaders to focus on their core work instead of hustling for the cash to survive.
So what does it mean to host WOW in Pakistan?
Amneh states that although the feminist movement in Pakistan was strong in the 80’s and 90s had been strong, there was an impasse in the noughties. WOW came to Pakistan in 2016, about the time when the MeToo conversations came to the country, alongside a new wave of feminism.
‘There have been some amazing women doing things in silos alongside the big debates such as MeToo, but there was also a communal need to bring people together. We saw this in the form of Aurat March where women from diverse groups wanted a platform, wanted to come together and meet in the flesh, occupy space, be seen, be visible and be heard. It’s interesting that WOW Pakistan came at this time when we ourselves are gathering and trying to pool resources to come together. For me, personally, WOW - it’s about community, networks, friendships.’
Dr Qazi agrees sees the potential for WOW to grow as a movement. ‘We tend to work in silos and we miss out the important, opportunistic leveraging that we could do as group of activists. How can we intersect with each other and how can we maximise potential? I think WOW can provide that space to do so.’
How can we intersect with each other and how can we maximise potential? I think WOW can provide that space to do so.
Maheen is keen to celebrate different approaches, she tells me: ‘I think WOW is a big achievement and an opportunity for us to celebrate and express ourselves but I’m not sure how it looks country to country, I believe in things growing organically. I think to have a certain diversity, to create access, to create networks where people are interested, and to think beyond just a simple celebration we need to think about, what Amneh was saying, about community, friendships and building those links. I think those are more concrete things this platform can help with.’
All three women have joined us in London to gain inspiration and learn from the UK festival. ‘I couldn’t imagine two more different societies’ Amneh says. ‘We wouldn’t ever be able to replicate an identical version of WOW here and it wouldn’t make sense anyway. I’m excited to meet the British Council team from South Asia. South Asian countries have strong connections: we have shared histories, and sometimes culture and religion, it would be interesting to see if we could get a South Asian voice out of this.’
Amneh also believes it provides an opportunity for leaders to come together, but argues that the term is problematic:
'We talk a lot about developing leaders and I often struggle with that because I don’t know what that means. We do a lot of work for leadership development, working on economic empowerment programming, we say we are developing leaders in villages and these are the leaders. Quite often that’s just a woman willing to take a bit of a risk, or who has education, or has found her voice or is slightly louder than the others. But what does that truly mean? What is the vision for female leadership? What should that look like? That’s a question I still struggle with and fluctuate with myself. It’s an area I’m trying to understand. And I’m hoping to see how it is handled elsewhere – because WOW is globally attended – I’m really interested to see that.'
We say we are 'developing leaders'...Quite often that’s just a woman willing to take a bit of a risk, or who has education, or has found her voice or is slightly louder than the others.
Maheen agrees. ‘Having Naomi Klein for example - she is talking about things like the impact of capitalism on our lives and our environment which resonates with people all over the world. That would be an example of someone who is able to bridge a wide range of differences to connect people together.’
I ask each of the women what they would like to see change for women and girls in Pakistan.
Amneh laughs: 'You want us to pick one thing?!'
'There are so many things I could say' she continues. 'It depends what is bothering you that morning, particularly. One of the things that will be transformational, is if we manage to change the definition of respect for women, or what is locally considered respect. Quite often, when women are put in submissive roles, or are being held back, it is often tied to the concept of respecting them. You can hear it over and over again, on popular television, everywhere, the narrative that “we are only doing this because we respect you”. If we could just change what means to respect another person, I think that change would be transformational, crosscutting and huge. What does it mean to respect a woman in Pakistan?'
One of the things that will be transformational, is if we manage to change the definition of respect for women.
For Dr Qazi, it is about education. ‘From my own perspective, as a women’s health activist, I see that young girls who are given the chance to go to school, stay at school, for them education can be transformative. Economic empowerment comes along with it. So if you have some of these skills that have been developed along the way, if the girls are not pushed just by their own marriages. We have seen in several pieces of research that we have done that their reproductive health is much better, their decision-making is stronger, even for the woman that has gone from primary to secondary school, she has a different way and attitude to the life.
What is going to be transformative is the girls being sent to school, being given the chance. But a lot of social norms have to be changed, of course, around the movement, what they want and what they can express, what they can do and make their dreams come to reality. And men being open to accept that. Because it anything happens with a girl they would say "you brought shame to the family".
What is going to be transformative is the girls being sent to school, being given the chance.
This kind of attitude and social norms have to change and they can only change if women and girls are given opportunities. That will be transformative and let them be what they want to be and realise their potential to the fullest.’
For Maheen, the change is more internal. ‘What I would want for women and girls is something that I would even want for myself, and it is not any external change as such, the first change is an internal one. I would want for myself and for others first, to feel whole and not to feel themselves victims and essentially to have a change in perception, where you begin to value your life and your experience and accept yourself and be kind to yourself, to interact with the world not from a place of feeling victimised or angry, but from a place of finding your own strength, and agency and compassion.
When your own perspective about yourself changes, then not just how you experience the world but how the world engages with you changes.
All kinds of women in all kinds of situations, they’re never going to be uniform, there will always be power and difficult marital relations, but I really believe change starts when your own perspective changes and it’s transformative. When your own perspective about yourself changes, then not just how you experience the world but how the world engages with you changes. Everything has its place. Rights have their place. Enabling environments have their place. But essentially it starts with each individual.'