By Hira Nafees Shah
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
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”
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
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
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.”
Community Service project at F-7 Park
Community Service project at Pakistan Monument
Community Service project at Edhi Homes
Community Service project at Pakistan Sweet Home
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: