5 Extraordinary Women From Pakistan You Must Know About This International Women's Day
This International Women’s Day, we look at five remarkable women from across the border who have fought and inspired in equal measure, through their actions and words
Women around the world have been bastions of hope, courage, inspiration and dedication, not just for other women, but also men, while also being active agents behind long-lasting societal transformations. This seems to be truer now more than any other time, when women have risen in revolt against age-old injustices.
This International Women’s Day, we look at five remarkable women from Pakistan—poets, activists, film producers and human rights lawyers among them—who have fought and inspired in equal measure, through their actions and words.
Asma Jahangir, human rights activist and lawyer, (1952–2018)
Illustration: Aziza Ahmad
By the time Asma Jahangir was 18 years old, her father, a retired bureaucrat turned politician, had been imprisoned several times for public protest. And while she learned to stand up for what was right from her parents, being fearless came naturally to her. As a young student at a convent-run school in Lahore, she rallied to change how the head girl was selected. Asma demanded there be ‘at least a semblance of an election’, instead of a girl being chosen by the nuns, as was tradition. The school administration eventually agreed, while retaining veto power.
It was the year 1971, however, that marked her formal entry into a lifetime of public struggle and activism. Her father had been imprisoned yet again, this time by the then President, General Yahya Khan. Asma filed a petition for his release in the Lahore High Court, which was dismissed. She later said, "Courts were not new to me. Even before his detention, my father remained in jail ... we were not allowed to go see him there. We always saw him in courts. So for me, the courts were a place where you dressed up to see your father." Unfazed, young Asma appealed to the Supreme Court. When Yahya Khan’s rule ended in 1972, the courts declared the imprisonment illegal and Asma won her very first case. The young girl had found her calling and she was off to law school!
However, she was forced to drop out when she fell in love and got married; the college had a strict policy disallowing married women from attending. Asma persevered, unstoppable in her goal to become a lawyer, and managed to complete her degree. She went on to set up the very first female law firm in the country, specializing in divorce and custody, with her sister and two friends.
Asma was known for her immense courage and her unwavering strength and capacity to stand against forces that would crush the oppressed. Even when placed under house arrest for fighting a law that discriminated against women and religious minorities under the pretext of Islamization, she persisted. She risked life and limb when she stepped out on the streets and spoke out on public television and later, on her spirited twitter account. She never stopped calling out those in power who perpetuated misogyny in the name of religion, and spread violence and intolerance.
Asma was a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum, a feminist movement that started in the 1980s, and established the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She became the very first woman president of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 1983. Asma not only battled religious injustices, she also fought for the rights of women, minorities, for freedom to choose whom you marry, and opposed bonded labour and the controversial blasphemy law, managing to irk many—from the military to the mullahs. When she passed away in 2018, Pakistan mourned the loss of a great woman who did more for its democratic and inclusive future than any other person in recent history.
Noor Jehan, music diva, (1926–2000)
Illustration: Aziza Ahmad
Pakistan’s Queen of Melody, Noor Jehan’s life is an inspiring story for all women with big dreams and a defiant spirit. The first iconic diva of Pakistan’s entertainment industry rose from humble origins. Born in the small town of Kasur, Allah Rakhi Wasai was exposed to show business at a young age. She began singing at the age of 6, exhibiting considerable versatility and range. Allah Rakhi launched her musical career as a child star in Calcutta under the stage name of ‘Baby Noor Jehan’. She moved to Lahore in 1938, where the famed music director Ghulam Haider became her mentor and composed songs for her to sing.
Her career as a singer was taking off when she got her first adult acting role as the female lead in the hit film Khandaan in 1942. This prompted her to shift to Mumbai with director Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, who she later married at seventeen. Post Partition, she moved to Karachi and got her first big break in 1951 in the movie Chan Wey, opposite Santosh Kumar. She not only acted and sang in this film, but also directed it with her husband, becoming Pakistan’s first female director. No mean feat for a woman of her time!
Noor Jehan’s career flourished in the 1950s and it is estimated that she recorded about 10,000 songs in various languages, including Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Sindhi. She worked without complaint to combine a glittering career with motherhood. However, her marriage suffered and ended in divorce. This fuelled gossip about multiple love affairs. But Noor did not let setbacks and scandals get in her way and ruled the Pakistani film industry, not only as a celebrated playback, but also a gifted ghazal singer. She became famous for many other things too—her silken saris, neckties, bold eye make-up, glamorous hairstyles, sparkling diamonds and her generosity. She remarried in 1959 to a film actor who was nearly a decade younger than her and gave up acting to spend more time with her family. But her musical career continued to flourish. In 1965, she was awarded the Pride of Performance Award for her acting and singing ability and the Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 1996.
Hers was a mesmerizing voice, never false on pitch, and she did not waste her talent. Noor Jehan was known for her hard work and devotion to her chosen profession. Through good times and bad, this extraordinary nightingale dedicated keen attention to perfecting her genius. Even in her declining years, she remained an imposing figure and continues to influence musicians in Pakistan today. In a career spanning six decades, two marriages, five children, fourteen films and literally thousands of songs, Noor Jehan was the uncontested grand dame of the Pakistani film vocals.
Salima Hashmi, artist and curator, (1942–present)
Illustration: Aziza Ahmad
Daughter of the radical poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and educator, Alys Faiz, Salima Hashmi was immersed in both creative arts and politics from a very young age. Her father had been in the Indian military but resigned after migrating to Lahore and became an editor at a daily newspaper. The family was beginning to find their bearings, when the subcontinent splintered.
On their way back from a vacation, young Salima saw a bus full of dead Sikhs who had been massacred in the riots. When they arrived in Murree, her mother organized women from the group into a peace procession to stop the rioting by putting themselves on the front line. Salima was placed on a donkey and handed a white flag. As the leader of the procession, she never forgot her fear of the donkey she rode or the pride she felt in leading the odd little rally.
Salima had been raised speaking Urdu and when she was enrolled in the local convent school, the nuns were aghast that an Englishwoman’s daughter could not speak English! Salima hated school because the nuns forbade her from conversing in Urdu. She eventually moved to another educational institution, but her distressing experience made her a compassionate and inclusive educator and leader.
When Salima was eight, her father was jailed for speaking against military rule and class oppression. Memories of visiting him in prison and hearing his rebellious poetry became formative experiences. Like her father, she turned to the arts as a means of exploring social and political themes. She studied arts education, photography and painting in Lahore, the UK and the United States. Salima’s work represented the first generation of contemporary artists from Pakistan and reflected experiences of political and social uncertainty under General Zia.
Salima was also active in the human rights movement and became a founding member of the feminist group, the Women’s Action Forum. She and her artist-playwright husband Shoaib Hashmi produced a series of creative and children’s programmes for Pakistan Television. In 1981, Shoaib was arrested for voicing unpopular, progressive views. It was déjà vu. Salima’s daughter was the same age that she’d been when her father was arrested and in a twisted chain of events, the superintendent of the jail where Shoaib was housed was the same jailer from her father’s tenure in prison! These experiences cemented Salima’s belief that history is formative and that until stories weren’t shared and people didn’t come to terms with past violence, they wouldn’t be able to move forward.
Salima has exhibited, lectured and been published across the world. She is a passionate educator and taught at the prestigious National College of Arts. Salima also runs her own gallery to promote the work of emerging artists. Her influence in the creative economy, human rights, peace and women’s movements in Pakistan is unparalleled. "I do agree that my work has always been very political. I view myself as a highly political being because everything is interlinked with politics. I have never doubted for a moment that all cultural work is political work."
Shahida Malik, 2-star army general, (1946–present)
Illustration: Aziza Ahmad
While women have been part of the armed forces in Pakistan since its inception, few have risen through the ranks as Major General Shahida Malik has. Ambitious and competitive, Shahida worked hard to ace every single subject in school. ‘I just didn’t like coming second,’ Shahida says of her accomplishments and drive. However, despite success in school, Shahida wasn’t sure of what she wanted to do in life. This changed when her mother, hospitalized during her matriculation year, expressed the desire to see her daughter become a doctor. "Just to make her smile, I nodded and agreed. Once I managed to qualify for medical school, I decided to stick to my part of the agreement."
Predictably, Shahida had a fantastic academic record at medical college and graduated at the top of her class. But just a year of working at state hospitals left her sorely disappointed by their utter lack of accountability and discipline. She applied and was selected for the Army Medical Corps in 1970, where she trained and served as a medic and field combat officer for several years. However, Shahida refused to remain relegated to the typical administrative or technical roles assigned to women. Now retired from active duty, she worked incredibly hard to become the first high-ranking two-star female general in the country and her natural leadership skills and talent helped along the way.
She met her husband in the army and they are the only couple in Pakistan to have served as generals, side by side. Shahida’s career took a backseat for a few years when she raised her three children while caring for ageing parents and in-laws—particularly when her husband moved the family to the UK to complete his specialization. She is vocal about society’s expectation that women balance their home and career while men don’t. While acknowledging the difficulties of working in an overwhelmingly male profession, she is also clear that women have every right to be in the armed forces. She believes that the motivations to join the force are the same—everyone wants to serve their country and be part of something bigger than themselves.
Shahida has also served as the Deputy Commander and Inspector General (Surgeon- General) of the Pakistan Army Medical Corps, the highest-ranking position in the Army’s medical department. She is the first woman to hold this rank, a feat, she says, that was only possible "through super human effort, hard work and the support of my life partner". Shahida is the most decorated female officer in Pakistani history and the ‘Lady General’ has also received the Hilal-i-Imtiaz and Sitara-i-Imtiaz.
A natural leader, Shahida’s story is proof that women are capable of whatever they put their minds to and to excel in whatever field they work in. "Throughout life, one faces difficulties from male colleagues’, she has said, but she emphasizes that women must ‘stand up, answer them, and set boundaries. I have no regrets at all and am very proud of the years I have lived. If I had to relive it again, I couldn’t do it any better."
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, producer and director, (1978–present)
Illustration: Aziza Ahmad
For filmmaker, activist, two-time Oscar and six-time Emmy award winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the camera is the world’s most powerful weapon. Sharmeen has been filming, directing and producing remarkable narratives ranging from creative features and educational films for women to critical investigative content on the lives of child suicide bombers and acid attack victims from around the globe for over twenty years. At her filmhouse, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (SOC) Films, Sharmeen and her team of young graduates tell stories of the voiceless, the underprivileged and the forgotten.
Sharmeen, whose work has always sparked dialogue about women’s rights, is the only Pakistani to have won two Oscars, for Saving Face and A Girl in the River. The latter is about a 19-year-old survivor of an honour killing attempt by her father and uncle, who shot her in the face as punishment for falling in love, and brought Sharmeen international recognition. Following its worldwide success, the Prime Minister of Pakistan screened the movie at his office and a previously delayed ‘honour’ killing bill passed in Parliament. The new legislation plugged a loophole in the earlier law and ensured killers got an obligatory life sentence. Previously, they could be, and generally were, pardoned by a member of the victim’s family. Now, even if forgiveness was forthcoming, it could only spare them the death penalty. In a country where there are over a 1000 reported cases of honour killings annually, this not a small accomplishment.
Despite her achievements, Sharmeen has often been called out about the fact that her films tarnish Pakistan’s reputation and are seen as pandering to prejudiced and one-sided western media narratives about the country, particularly its attitude towards women. Sharmeen is unperturbed by the criticism. "Am I glad international pressure forces society to confront an issue so horrific? Absolutely. If this is what it is going to take, I will work on that for the rest of my life. If you don’t like your reflection in the mirror, don’t shoot the messenger."
In 2017, Sharmeen addressed the 47th World Economic Forum (WEF) and became the first ever Pakistani artist to co-chair the WEF’s annual meeting. She was also awarded the Knight International Journalism Award for her efforts to chronicle the human toll of extremism at great personal risk. The 40-year old is determined to not allow people to limit her. She has chronicled and reported her outrage at misogyny and injustice, which forces people to reflect on difficult and uncomfortable subjects. "I am a woman. I am successful. And I am not afraid to speak my mind." A mantra that all women should live by!
Book cover courtesy Penguin Random House India