When women became professionals

By Zubeida Mustafa

‘A woman in a man’s world!’ That is how working women, my contemporaries in the 1960s, were described. We chose to give up the comfort zone of our homes to crash into a preserve dominated by professionals. Since these professionals happened to be men (except in the fields of teaching and medicine where the female presence was pretty visible) it required us to break the gender barrier as well. Yet we regarded ourselves foremost as professionals.

(Front Row) Hasan Abidi, Chappra , M.A. Qayyum, M.A. Shakoor, Ahmed Ali Khan, Mohsin Ali, Habib Khan Ghouri; (2nd row, left to right) Fazal Imam, Ghayurul Islam, Zubeida Mustafa, M.A. Majid, Saleem Asmi, M.B. Naqvi; (3rd row, left tor ight) Hazoor Ahmad Shah, M.J. Zahedi, M.H. Askari, Salahuddin, Iqbal Jafri - Karachi Press Club, 1994 (photo provided by the writer)

We were also seen as bulls in a china shop . We did not exactly want to smash everything up but had no inhibitions about our dreams to create a brave new world. And we certainly had a lot of idealism in us. The ’60s may be dubbed as the golden age of the debut of female professionals in the workplace. Practically no area of public life was left untouched by women struggling to get in — and succeeding.

It would be wrong to say that women had not made a mark in public life before us. There were many icons who served as role models. But they were scattered and restricted to a few areas. After the ’60s feminisation of the professions began no career was left untouched by women.

Nafisa Hoodbhoy, a former colleague from Dawn, reminded me jokingly of the series of interviews she did generically titled “Women in Careers”. Every woman she talked to was a “first” in her field in the gender context. The ’60s were indeed watershed years. Quite a few of the women, who graduated from the University of Karachi, went on to enter one profession or the other. We were like a growing force, drawing inspiration from the few who had preceded us.

I joined the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs as a research officer, having studied International Relations. It needed a lot of courage in those days to go into a male preserve.

It wasn’t quite the done thing. With enlightened and supportive parents I didn’t have to wage a battle at home as many other women had to. My anchor in my day-to-day working life was a very dear friend, Khalida Qureshi, who provided me the confidence that I needed.

Being together in those early years made a lot of difference to both of us as we could hold our own. It also made me strong in the coming years when I had to fend for myself. That is how most women managed. We didn’t have unions of women workers or exclusive collective bargaining powers. We trod a cautious path because there were not many laws protecting our rights and we lacked the strength of numbers as is the case today.

For nearly five years after I joined Dawn in 1975, after a child-rearing break, there was just another woman staffer there, Rukhsana Mashhadi, who worked part-time to edit the women’s page and the entertainment columns. I admired her for her commitment to the women’s cause. She always had with her as a permanent companion, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. That and her persistent requests to me for an article got me involved in women’s issues.

It was Rukhsana who widened the area of my journalistic interests. This came in handy in the Zia period when the Women’s Action Forum was founded. No other paper followed WAF’s progress as closely as Dawn did as it thrilled me to comment on the nascent women’s movement in Pakistan.

People ask me how did it feel to be a lone woman most of the time. At the time I hardly thought much about it, because for me and many others in my position the dilemma was of balancing our life outside the home and our family responsibilities. Besides we were the first generation to view our roles beyond basically as homemakers and child-carers. It was a balancing act we were required to perform between the sense of guilt that gnawed at our conscience vis-à-vis our children and the deep satisfaction that engulfed us when we were given credit for an assignment well done.

Another fact that not many women have admitted to is the discrimination in reverse many of us were privileged to enjoy. Today it does not seem strange when the concept of working from home allows men and women to absent themselves from office for days at an end even if they have nothing to show for their absence. At a time when we were expected to be around in office, it was a luxury to come in early and go home at lunch time to be with my girls. I was, however, expected to hand in my work on time and many Dawn editorials were written late in the night as I sat curled up in bed when my children were fast asleep.

As for society pointing fingers at me, I really didn’t care so long as I had my family’s support for my unconventional lifestyle, given the norms back then. I think that is how most women serious about a career coped. A career was not for the faint-hearted. I didn’t change, society changed.

At Dawn I saw the change come in the form of the influx of women — many of them introduced by me. When Dawn celebrated Ahmad Ali Khan Sahib’s 25 years of editorship at the Karachi Press Club, Mr Mahmoud Haroon, the chairperson of the PHPL, could proudly claim that his paper had inducted women into the media in a big way. Our number had grown to 16 that caused Uneza Akhtar, a delightful colleague who edited the mid-week magazine, to remark pithily that we were the “sola singhar of Dawn”.

Did we face any “discrimination” or harassment? When I look at it in retrospect, it makes me laugh. They were pinpricks compared to the threats journalists face today. When Ziaul Haq refused to accept me as a member of his press entourage in an official foreign tour because he thought it odd to have one female in a bunch of male reporters, it gave me great satisfaction to turn down the revived invitation when the Begum Sahiba said she wanted to accompany the president.

Did it matter when I wrote an article on breast cancer and a delegation of bearded ‘venerables’ raided Haroon House protesting against “obscenity”? The editor shooed them off saying how could they be so callous in a matter of life and death. As for me, I went on to write about women’s reproductive health and contraception without fearing for my life.

Today we flatter ourselves with the thought that our generation set the tradition. Many broke the glass ceiling and went on to become great achievers. Who can forget the giants like Razia Bhatti who showed guts in the face of great adversity and along with others, like Sherry Rahman, Maleeha Lodhi, Rehana Hakim and Zohra Yusuf, became editor. The quality that stood us in good stead was our ability to bond together and network skillfully even in an age when the Internet was called the Information Highway and none of us had a computer. But we had humanism in abundance.

Source: Dawn

8 thoughts on “When women became professionals

  1. its is very much right that its man's world but never forget that we are also here, so if we dont except our self or our identy than how other will give us equal imprtance which is our right,
    women always going to ignore everywhere anywhere,but we should have to prove our impotance and our identy with hard work & positive thinking,no doubt that in present time women improve their self but other side is that women which are in remote areas rural areas,who will help them,still they distroying their lives without knowing their sin or crime???????????
    so the thing is that women need space independece & thier basic rights of living…….
    AND through this comint i want to say Men in over all of the world that please stop thinking that women is toy & she is just for entertainment , & she is dependent of men,sooooo please give them equal opertunity or equal space of working with respect & right,
    let know them that life comes just for once never back again, so do what ever you want & live your life with your own way & enjoy …………………….

  2. @ Zubeida!

    The photo posted itself tells about the place of a woman, at that times, in professional's world. Equally it tells that one and only one LION is required to rule. There must be a man also behind your success which either you seems do not like to mention.

    In between, the day you write this page and today, Sherry Rehman has been chosen as first person of Pak in USA. Hope she make all to forget 'memogate'.

  3. Very pleased to read the piece albeit the self congratulatory tone of the article. No doubt it was/is a success of a sort. However look around you and note the distance travelled, not a great deal. Leave the teaching and the medicine professions,alright , with a modicum of success in the journalism ? How many women journalists in the Urdu press by the way?
    No more than a handful ! Is it time to have a congratulatory ball? No madam, not, I would say. where are women in the civil service, police service, the Army, the Air Force and countless other professions ? The bearded brigade is all over the shop. O,well, how many women are there in the 'religion' industry ?
    I appreciate the success achieved and the hoops jumped through, because of my own experiences in the UK in the 60's . As an Asian I had to jump through many discriminatory hopes to be the first Asian headteacher in the North of England. Even today a few decade down the line there are no more than a handful of headteachers in the UK's
    ' state controlled' education system. Is it a cause for jubilation ! Not by any acceptable measure. The struggle goes on.
    The women in Pakistan are way way behind, it seems , the sap of change has stopped running since the odious influence of the Zia regime and his spiritual sons. As the inspirational Faiz said, "munzel abi nahien ayee".
    Shafiq Khan

    1. @ Shafiq!

      Your views are right as based on the facts. No doubt woman in Pak has not excelled in every field as compared to many other countries. The article is not a self congratulatory so you should have put 'bravery' label as women are enforcing their way. Benazir Bhutto, Rabani Khar, Sherry Rehman are few examples. The brave side of woman will pierce their way into bearded brigade.

      "Manzil abhi nahien ayee par ayegi jaroor"

  4. One thing that i am not getting is why man do not what the female deserves.Why the world do not support the women?why?

  5. This is truly an iconic photograph-a picture that is worth a thousand words.indeed- a young woman standing strong among all the distuinguished looking older gentlemen.Thanks for sharing your story and the stories of other working women who were the vanguard of the time-we do need to be reminded of our history from time to time .I too did a 1 year stint at Karachi University after graduating, at the department of English Literature. My mentors were Mrs Jamil and Dr Ashraf,very supportive, and many of the students were older than me. My experiences were by and large very positive and I left only to join my family abroad.
    As an expat of over 30 years,I am impressed on my visits by the progress made by women in Pakistan-fighter pilots,policewomen,cricketers,news anchors,interviewers,politicians,architects. I had to visit a court on one occasion and was pleasantly surprised to see the young lawyers milling around everywhere. I am sure there are plenty of issues that arise from time to time, but again, it is the pictures that speak a thousand words.
    Now if we could only overhaul the government……

  6. Ms Zubeida!

    You posted this article on 20th Nov and by then it was public that Ms Tawakkol Karman of Yemen has become the first Arabic and youngst Woman to won Nobel Peace Prize. She has done a great pride to Women all over. She believes in practicing the Values and there is too much to learn from other societies, religion and places.

    Will the other women get encouraged from success story of Karman or would wait for right of equality etc. etc.

    Anyone can read her views at http://www.yemenpost.net/Detail123456789.aspx?ID=

    If University of Michigen can celebrate her success then why Ms Zubeida could not? Are you limited up to Pakistan? Again any one can read her at http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/20041-first-arab….

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