Questions of Power: Women Empowerment Across Asia

By Hira Nafees Shah

Group Photograph of the participants with U.S Ambassador Richard Olson at the Women Empowerment Conference

Group Photograph of the participants with U.S Ambassador Richard Olson at the Women Empowerment Conference

A young Indian journalist raising her voice against an injustice that was committed against her. A Pakistani politician fighting the odds to change the system. A Bangladeshi working woman who dared to venture into an industry that few would risk. An Afghani woman making an impact on the ground. An American social activist bringing her music to prisoners, the disabled and infirm.

These are just some of the success stories that formed part of the keynote session when women from seven countries kicked off the International Women Empowerment Conference 2015 in Islamabad, organized by the Pakistan-U.S Alumni Network and U.S Embassy.

(From Left to Right) U.S Assistant Cultural Attaché Jameson Debose, Mary McBride, Sharada Jnawali, Tania Aria, Syeda Abida Hussain, Aarefa Johari and Selyna Peiris-speakers at Women Empowerment-Global Challenges, Opportunities and Success Stories panel with moderator Ayesha Fazlur Rahman

(From Left to Right) U.S Assistant Cultural Attaché Jameson Debose, Mary McBride, Sharada Jnawali, Tania Aria, Syeda Abida Hussain, Aarefa Johari and Selyna Peiris-speakers at Women Empowerment-Global Challenges, Opportunities and Success Stories panel with moderator Ayesha Fazlur Rahman

Syeda Abida Hussain, Mary McBride, Sharada Jnawali, Sarah Ali, Tania Aria, Aarefa Johari and Selyna Peiris’ personal accounts inspired more than 300 U.S sponsored exchange alumni who gathered in the capital city to make women’s empowerment a reality.

The theme for the conference was “Make it Happen,” which took place in conjunction with International Women’s Day. During the three day event, the participants received an opportunity to interact with speakers (the majority of whom were females) who had reached the top in fields such as media, politics, arts, science, and sport.

“There are various models in Pakistan to draw inspiration from,” said Khawar Mumtaz, Chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) while delivering her speech at the event. “I feel that with commitment and strength of character Pakistani women can achieve anything.”

Her sentiments were echoed by the Chief Guest U.S Ambassador Richard Olson, who noted that about fifty percent of participants in all U.S sponsored exchange programs in Pakistan consisted of women.

The CEO of the 60 Second Film Festival, Ibrar-ul-Hassan, also paid a homage to the power of Pakistani women by presenting minute-long videos which shed light on the different issues facing females in the country including gender discrimination, economic marginalization and lack of education.

Conference participants also showed how women can counter these challenges.  Fulbright alumna Aisha Azhar described her Alumni Small Grant project that taught poverty-stricken women in Ghazi how to sew. She felt that the conference enabled her to network with other alumni doing similar projects and said she enjoyed the sessions. Panelists discussed success from a very personal side, covering issues related to gender discrimination, divorce, and even female genital mutilation.

“The personal stories narrated at the panel discussion were really moving,” she said. “I am surprised that people are taking the initiative to discuss them so openly.”

Stimulating Sessions Draw Audience’s Applause

“I found Zeba Bakhtiar’s session to be the best because she said women have a personality and can also live without men,” said Saira Shams, an alumna of the Women with Disabilities exchange program.

Panelists Momina Duraid, Haseena Moeen, Zeba Bakhtair, Sarah Khan with moderator Anam Abbas at session on “Bringing Social Change through Film and TV”

Panelists Momina Duraid, Haseena Moeen, Zeba Bakhtair, Sarah Khan with moderator Anam Abbas at session on “Bringing Social Change through Film and TV”

Bakhtiar’s session, which was following with rapt attention by the audience, included legendary playwrights like Haseena Moeen, HUMTV Producer Momina Duraid and 16-year-old filmmaking prodigy Sarah Khan. There was a healthy debate among the panelists about how media should project women so as to bring about a positive change in society.

“I always made bold, self-determined girls and portrayed them as individuals,” said Haseena Moeen. “Media’s impact is slow but it’s durable and long-lasting.”

And from strong female characters on screen, the participants got a chance to interact with real-life role models like Parliamentarian Aasiya Nasir, National Forum of Women with Disabilities Chairperson Abia Akram, Young Rising Star Football Women Club Vice-Captain Faiza Mahmoud and Ex-PAF pilot Ifrah Aziz among others.

“I faced a lot of problems from men for standing up for the rights of minorities in Pakistan in the aftermath of Shahbaz Bhatti’s murder case,” said Nasir.

The other speakers also highlighted the struggles that they had to go through for working for the cause of disabled people, or showcasing the problems faced by Afghan refugees in getting citizenship in Pakistan or trying to promote sports among girls in the country.

(From Left to Right) Moderator Muniba Mazari with Samina Baig and Mirza Ali Baig-brother, sister duo who climbed Seven Summits in 2014

(From Left to Right) Moderator Muniba Mazari with Samina Baig and Mirza Ali Baig-brother, sister duo who climbed Seven Summits in 2014

Samina Baig and Mirza Ali Baig, the Pakistani brother-sister dynamic duo who scaled seven summits in eight months, received a standing ovation from the participants.

“I felt most inspired by Samina Baig’s session because it showed how men and women can cooperate with each other to build better relations,” said UGrad alumnus Syed Zia Hussain.

“We climb for purpose, for gender equality and for women’s empowerment,” said Mirza Baig while presenting an impassioned speech about treating women fairly and loving one’s country.

During the conference, the participants also had a choice between attending six breakout sessions under the umbrella theme of Knowing Your Rights such as Representation of Women in Mass Media, Women in Conflict Resolution Process, Political-Civic Rights and Status of Women’s Empowerment, Exploring Entrepreneurship Opportunities, Women and Health and Socio-Cultural Trends, Changes and Question of Women Empowerment.

The gatherings drew considerable interaction with audience, who jumped to provide their thoughts and explanations for the speakers’ questions.

“Why honor is only restricted to women?” asked Dr. Munazza Yaqoob from International Islamic University during her session on Socio-Cultural Trends.

Executive Director of Mehergarh-Center of Learning Maliha Hussain also hit out at cultural norms that placed undue restrictions on females.

“No law states that women cannot leave the house,” she said. “We also don’t allow ladies in our families to laugh out loud as we live in a patriarchal society.”

Meanwhile, during the meeting on Representation of Women in Mass Media, Rakhshinda Parveen and the participants mulled over the rising instances of rape in the country, the psychology of rapists, and the importance of standing up to workplace harassment.

The Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network also recognized the contributions of 12 distinguished female alumni across the country for rendering meritorious services in their communities. SUSI Alumnus Ahmed Qazi’s mother late Tahira Qazi brought the audience to their feet by her heroic act of standing up to terrorists and laying down her life during the Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar.

Aside from thought-provoking panels, the event also featured an array of entertainment, including concerts by the Mary McBride Band and Pakistani pop sensation Zoe Viccaji.

A Bharatnatyam dance performance during the Women Empowerment Conference

A Bharatnatyam dance performance during the Women Empowerment Conference

The attendees danced to the rocking tunes by both the artists especially when Viccaji delivered classics by timeless pop goddess Nazia Hassan.  A dance performance of Bharatnatyam by the dance legend Indu Mitha and her students wrapped up the second day.

Alumni Focus on Social Uplift in Community Service Projects

With the scenic Pakistan Monument in the background, alumni huddled together as they listened to local heroes from the disabilities-rights program STEP. The special needs persons listed the problems that they faced accessing basic facilities like washrooms in Pakistan while the participants, which included many international guests, expressed concern and solidarity.

Other conference attendees made their way to Edhi Homes and spend time with Senior Citizens and children, played with them and told stories to them.

“I really like this activity because I received an opportunity to interact with a lady staying at Edhi Foundation,” said Sarah Khan, SUSI Alumna. “I also live in a hostel in Peshawar so I can relate to her feeling of being lonely and being away from home and I feel at home with them.”

Meanwhile, the orphans from Pakistan Sweet Home put on a performance for about 50 alumni who toured their facility. The participants also made a colorful poster on the conference’s theme Make it Happen.

“These community service projects encourage spirit of volunteerism among alumni,” said Maheen Salman, SUSI Alumna while speaking about the importance of the activities.

A football match was also held between alumni, Young Rising Star Women Football Club team-members and Mashal Model School students in which everyone had a ball.

As the conference came to an end, the participants pondered over the takeaways that they had received from the event.

“We can now build a network of strong women from the seven countries in order to work on future projects together,” said Fatima Jafferi, an Afghan participant.

“The male participation at this conference has been healthy . . . whatever guys learn here, they will implement it in their homes,” said Syed Samiullah Shah, a Legislative Fellowship Program Alumnus from Balochistan.

Perhaps the most important consequence of the program was the international linkages that were developed as a result of it.

“It is good to see international guests because it links the region and they also share a similar culture,” said Irsa Younas, IVLP Alumna. “The geo-political situation is almost identical in these countries, so we can get suggestions from them and replicate their success stories in Pakistan.”

“I had heard a lot of negative stories about Pakistan in the media,” said Indeewari Amuwatte, a Sri Lankan participant. “Instead I have seen a very modern group.”

“It has been an amazing experience in Pakistan,” said Aarefa Johari, the Indian speaker. “Everyone has been so warm and they went out of their way to make us feel welcome.”

To take a look at the photographs from the event, check out this link:


It’s Time to Apply for the 2016 Fulbright Program!

Interested in earning your Master’s or Ph.D. at a U.S. university? There’s still time to apply for the 2016 Fulbright Degree Program!  The deadline is coming up on May 13, 2015, so get started on your application now!

Many amazing members of our Alumni network have enhanced their careers through the Fulbright program.  This program can open doors for graduate study in everything from finance to fine arts, from agriculture to astrophysics. Click the Brochure below to find out more!


If you’d like to know more about where U.S. Exchange programs can take you, watch the video below.  Fulbright alum and professional writer Bilal Tanweer discusses his experiences in the United States and development as a writer.  Pakistan has the largest Fulbright program in the world, so there are plenty of opportunities to pursue your dreams too!


The Fulbright Masters and PhD Program funds graduate study in the United States for a Master’s or Ph.D. degree. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), these grants cover tuition, required textbooks, airfare, a living stipend, and health insurance. The US Educational Foundation in Pakistan (USEFP) also assists with the visa process. The application deadline is May 13, 2015.

Apply for the Emerging Leaders of Pakistan Program!


Alumni are a great and diverse group, full of amazing leaders in nearly every field.  For all of our amazing emerging leaders, there is a great program that you can apply for now!

Emerging Leaders of Pakistan (ELP) is a highly selective program that inspires, empowers, and connects emerging young leaders from across Pakistan. The fellowship facilitates sustainable idea exchange among participants and with the broader community in Pakistan, the region, and the world by bringing together like-minded individuals who are working to create positive change within their communities and country.  Applications are open until March 16!

To learn more, click on the link above or go to this webpate:

SUSI Team Spirit!  Alumni Gather from Far and Wide to Hold Service Event with Former Teachers

By Hira Nafees Shah


U.S Assistant Cultural Affairs Attaché James Cerven, American Teachers and SUSI Alumnus Daniyal Hassan with children from Mashal Model School

Splattered with mud and grinning from ear to ear, more than a dozen school children of varying ages dashed around the playground. It was raining lightly but neither the kids, nor the American grown-ups who joined in their soccer match, seemed concerned.

With a forceful kick, a Mashal Model School student sent the ball wheeling past the American goal-keeper who tried in vain to slow it down.  With that goal, students from the school claimed victory in what is hoped to become a yearly football tradition.

This friendly match took place at the Mashal Model School and American teachers who were on a week-long visit to Pakistan to assess the progress that their Pakistani counterparts had made after returning from a the Study of the US Institutes (SUSI) program in the United States.

Aside from the match, the educators also helped students draw, paint and fold origami with scores of children from the charity school.

“The community service session was very moving and a life-changing experience for me,” said Geoff Friedman, one of the teachers who took part in the activity. “These children have materially very little and it’s nice to see how some wonderful teachers have provided them with affection and support.”

Reunion Draws Alumni from Across Pakistan

This initiative along with a reunion for SUSI Alumni in Pakistan was the brainchild of SUSI Alumnus Daniyal Hassan who completed the project with the help of an Alumni Small Grant from the Pakistan-U.S Alumni Network. All alumni of various U.S sponsored exchange programs in Pakistan can apply for the grant in order to give back to their communities.


SUSI Alumnus Daniyal Hassan with Islamabad/Rawalpindi Alumni Coordinator Shahid Waseem

“When we were in the U.S., our SUSI teachers told us that they would be visiting Pakistan in February,” said Hassan. “I decided to go for this project because I had told them that we will have a reunion when they would come here, to which all SUSI alumni will be invited.”

The event saw participation by more than 50 alumni who eagerly made their way to Islamabad from across Pakistan, so that they could reconnect with their American professors.

“The reunion is very good and I am very excited to see our American mentors here,” said Haleema Hasnain, SUSI alumna. “I am also happy that they are having a good time in Pakistan.”

“The American teachers visiting Pakistan are an encouragement for us,” said Syed Nazakat Hussain Shah, an alumnus from Gilgit Baltistan. “This is because if no updates are taken from us, then the benefit of the SUSI exchange program will be lost.”


University of Massachusetts-Amherst Professor Michael Hannahan

The reunion also featured an address by the head of the American delegation Michael Hannahan–who thanked the organizers for arranging the function and also expressed his delight at meeting his Pakistani mentees.

“We have accomplished our goals with this trip because we needed to bring American teachers to Pakistan and follow up on the barriers that Pakistani teachers were facing,” said Hannahan. “We are also facing a role reversal with Pakistani students because now they are showing their country to us.”

Interactive Group Activities

The reunion took place in an informal and relaxed setting. A number of interactive group activities were also held which were geared towards introducing alumni from different SUSI batches to each other, so that they could form new bonds of friendship.

Two videos covering the experiences of 2014 student leaders in America drew laughter and appreciation from the crowd.

Meanwhile, two SUSI Alumni Ahmed Qazi and Jawad Ahmed Khan also shared their success stories, since returning to Pakistan from their exchange experience.


SUSI Alumni networking with an American Teacher during the reunion

“Extremist ideology killed my mother and we need to work on that ideology to overcome it,” said Qazi while talking about his mother who was martyred in the December 16, 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. “We need to look towards conflict resolution so that all people vulnerable to that ideology can be saved.”

On the other hand, Jawad Ahmed Khan proudly mentioned the outreach that he and his friends had carried out in Balochistan to inform the students in his province about various U.S.-sponsored exchange programs available to Pakistani students.

The University of Massachusetts teachers, including Professor Hannahan, also took part in a panel session on the impact of exchange programs in the reunion. They stressed that people to people contacts are the best way of improving ties between Pakistan and the U.S.

As the event came to a close, the main organizer Daniyal Hassan had mixed feelings about the successful culmination of his project.

“We all had tears in our eyes when we were saying goodbye to our American professors,” he said. “But I am also grateful to the Alumni Small Grant because it helped me to achieve my dream and fulfill my promise to my mentors.”

To take a look at more photographs from the reunion, check out this link:

More Opportunities: GIST Tech-I Competition

GIST Tech-I Apply Now Social media

Hello to all of our aspiring Pakistani entrepreneurs!  The U.S. Department of State is announcing another great international program designed to give you an edge in developing your tech idea into a booming tech business.  Read on for all the details about the GIST Tech-I program, and how to get involved!

An Awesome Opportunity for Entrepreneurs

Do you know science and technology entrepreneurs (ages 18-40) with an idea or a startup that solves a problem connected to the environment, conservation, water, agriculture, energy, ICT, or health?  Encourage them to apply for the GIST Tech-I competition today. This U.S. State Department program has been highlighting important role models and science issues for embassies and communities since 2011. Please share this opportunity with universities, incubators, and other groups within your network who might be interested in applying.  For more information about GIST’s 2015 Tech-I competition, go to

What makes Tech-I unique from other competitions?

The difference is that each phase focuses on training applicants to move their ventures forward. With the application, entrepreneurs create a marketing video that can be shown to customers. Semi-finalists improve networking, social media, and marketing skills as they work to obtain the highest number of votes globally. Finalists improve their business model canvas as well as their in-person pitching skills during a free trip to attend the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) where they compete for monetary prizes. All finalists earn three months of mentorship after the GES.

Help spread the word about this opportunity today. GIST is accepting applications until March 20.  Applicants only need to submit an executive summary and a short video to promote the innovation.

Want More Details? Need Help with your Application? Attend one of our webinars:

  • Wednesday Feb 25, 9:00am US EST

Topic – Is Tech-I for me? What is Tech-I?

  • Wednesday Mar 4, 9:00am US EST

Topic – How to make a promotional video

  • Wednesday Mar 18, 9:00am US EDT

Topic – Advice on how to complete your proposal

U.S. Exchange Alumna Abia Akram Included in UN Women of Achievement List

Abia Akram Congratulations to U.S./Pakistan Disability Leadership Professional Exchange Program Alumna Abia Akram who has made it to the United Nations Women of Achievement list! She is the first woman from Pakistan to be the Coordinator for the Commonwealth Young Disabled People’s Forum, in addition to being the first woman with disabilities from Pakistan to win the prestigious Chevening scholarship. Read the complete news here: