I feel greatly honored to be here to receive this award. I receive this award also on behalf of all my fellow journalists in Pakistan who have struggled collectively for years for press freedom which created the space for me to write on issues that are close to my heart, which made this award possible. Their struggle has been vindicated.
Also deserving recognition are the women journalists in my country who followed the path I charted out for myself. Thus they honored me. Had they not done so, I would not have earned the description of a “pioneer”.
I feel humble before my fellow professionals here, Khadija from Azerbaijan, Asmaa from Palestine and Reeyot from Ethiopia who have won the courage in journalism awards. They risked their lives and freedom and deserve our admiration. They inspire me. Many years ago in 1994, a very dear friend and colleague of mine, the late Razia Bhatti, also won this honor and that is how the IWMF was introduced to Pakistan. We learnt about the good work the IWMF is doing to encourage female journalists to realize their full potential.
In her piece on me, a young female reporter described me as “An Accidental Journalist”. I was amused but I must confess this is true. Journalism has been a series of accidents for me – the first being breaking my shoe straps just when I was to enter the editor’s office for myjob interview.
At that time I had taken a break from my work as a researcher in a Pakistani think tank on foreign affairs to see my girls through their infancy and their “toddlerhood”. The invitation from Dawn was tempting. From reading fairy tales to my girls I was being asked to write editorials on South Asian politics, which is actually a fairy tale of another kind.. That would be a big jump. Frankly, I hesitated. I knew how to write. But I knew of no other woman in the mainstream media in my country who was a leader writer. I decided to give it a try – three months was the period I allowed myself. Before I could think about the matter again 33 years had passed and it was time for my retirement.
I soon discovered how demanding a job journalism was. First of all it is a 24/7 job. That was even before this term was coined. You want to share with the readers whatever you experience in life. So you remain alert all the time looking at things around you through the eyes of a news person. That is how it was when I was in Stockholm interviewing Queen Sylvia. Or when I was reading the epitaph on the tombstones of the boys killed in Soweto demanding an end to apartheid. There I was, pleading for peace between Pakistan and India when covering a South Asian women’s conference in New Delhi.
There was a bigger challenge I faced. It was something new. It was the gender barrier. Coming from a family of three sisters and one brother I never had to worry about a male majority. In Dawn I was initially the only woman in a man’s world. The first challenge was to establish my credentials so that people would take my work seriously. President General Ziaul Haq actually refused me entry into his press entourage on one of his visits abroad saying it was a stag party. I am happy to say things have changed now and I have had my revenge — the hens are having a field day in the media at all levels in Pakistan.
As for myself personally, one day I knew I had pulled down the barrier. There was an angry reaction to an editorial I wrote chastising pharmaceutical companies for using marketing techniques to push up their profits. The pharma representatives didn’t want the truth to be told. They were angrier still when they discovered that a woman was the author of the piece.
There was no turning back for me then. I had discovered the power of my pen and wrote against social evils. It needed a female pen to do so. I wrote against exploitation, oppression, inequities, social injustice and violence. Believe me, these subjects are hot potatoes and it has taken courage to write on them. These evils have not been rooted out. But they are certainly being addressed. The struggle has to go on. That is what journalism is. That is what makes journalism so satisfying for me.
Thank you IWMF for recognizing these efforts.