Women climbing the ladder of success

January 8, 2023

Women in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are achieving new milestones and making the country proud

Women climbing the ladder of success


022 was a good year. Many women from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa won international awards, accolades and prizes for outstanding achievements. The recognition they received must inspire other women.

The first KP woman to make it to the headlines was the melody queen, Zarsanga. Aged 70, she is a wandering artist who has a large fan base mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pashto folk vocalist made the country proud by winning the prestigious Aga Khan music award.

The legendary folk artist received her award at an event held in the last week of October in Muscat, Oman. The award ceremony is held triennially to promote the folk music tradition across the globe.

“It was a matter of great pride for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and our country when Aga Khan Music Awards Master Jury decided to confer the most coveted award on me in recognition of my contribution to Pashto music,” said Zarsanga, beaming with pride.

She added that when she received the news, it made her feel better. “My financial condition at the time was far from ideal. I was living with my family in a tent in Kohat,” she said. “I have some eighty family members to take care of at the time,” she added.

Aga Khan Music Master Jury (AKMAMJ) announced awards for 10 popular folk music artists from around the world including two from India, one each from Afghanistan, Iran, Tanzania, Mauritania, Indonesia, Mali and the UK. The winners were selected from over 400 nominations.

The cash award of $500,000 was shared by ten winners and six special mentions including Sain Zahoor, a prominent Punjabi folk musician with a lifelong career of singing sufi poetry at shrines and festivals, often accompanied by ecstatic dance.

Zalubai alias Zarsanga launched her singing career from Radio Pakistan Peshawar in her early teens. Since then she has been contributing to Pashto folk music. She has represented Pakistan in the US, UK, Japan, Germany and France.

Wagma Feroz, a young woman rights activist and filmmaker hailing from Mohammad tribal district, earned the international Stefanus Prize in recognition of her outstanding contribution to promoting human rights. She said that any social or political change in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would remain incomplete without women’s participation.

After prominent rights activist, the late Asma Jahangir, Wagma Feroz became the second Pakistani woman to win this prize. She has been working for the promotion of interfaith harmony and woman‘s rights since 2010 when she was a university student.

The Stefanus Prize, given biannually to rights activists, was set up in 2005 by Stefanus Alliance International, a Norway-based NGO. It was presented in a ceremony held last week in Oslo, Norway. Last year, she had won a prize for a documentary titled She Makes Everything Beautiful that focused on empowering women.

Feroz has been heading an organisation called Da Torsaro Sadar (cover for women) to address women’s issues. She has also been engaged in raising awareness among women in tribal areas through theatre and digital storytelling, documentary and short film-making on religious freedom, interfaith harmony and human rights.

“This award is not only for me but also for all the women and men who suffered pain and hardships along the way and never lose hope. Despite all the differences of religion, colour, race and ideology, we can peacefully coexist in this world. It is our shared home,” she told The News On Sunday.

Wagma Feroz said she had been focusing on women-related issues in Swat and tribal districts. “This is an endless struggle and women should stand up for their rights. I advise young university students to muster the courage to work for a substantive change in society. Currently, I am working on certain aspects of religious freedom and women’s issues, including gender inequality, domestic violence and access to quality education,” Wagma said.

Zeenat Khan, a young woman rights activist, recently won an international award for producing a short film titled She stood against religious extremism for the year 2022. The ward was sponsored by the US-based organisation Empowerment Women Media (EWM). It was the fifth annual event under the EWM. The winning short film will be screened at the International Religious Freedom (IRF) summit in Washington DC in October this year.

Zeenat Khan, a resident of Malakand, was presented a cash prize of $3,000 at a ceremony held in Islamabad in August 2022 for participating in the Women Empowerment and Religious Freedom Film competition. She has been working on women‘s rights and interfaith harmony for 12 years. She is also the founder of Gender Lens, a youth forum for women‘s rights.

“Young women can make use of digital media to bring about a substantive societal change. Women and children are mostly victims of violence. They should come forward to contribute positively to society by promoting interfaith harmony,” she told the TNS. Zeenat Khan said that after doing a master‘s in journalism more than a decade ago from the University of Peshawar, she had decided to use her skills to address social issues related to youth and religious minorities. It was an uphill task but she embarked upon the journey despite family restrictions.

After settling in Peshawar, she said, she initiated a project to launch a dialogue between various religious communities for a peaceful community life. She said that she came to know that before the recent wave of extremism in the city and elsewhere in the country, religious minorities used to live peacefully.

“Extremism bred hatred among communities to the extent that they stopped attending festivals arranged by next door neighbors. I floated the idea of telling a story that should showcase the situation and it was approved by the jurists,” said the young rights activist.

“My short film is based on the true story of a young woman in a war-stricken region of Pakistan who initiates a dialogue by approaching every religious community and holding sessions with youth and convincing them to work for peaceful coexistence,” Zeenat Khan said. Khan said that the basic theme of the short film was to promote interfaith harmony and counter sectarian violence through dialogue.

Almas Khanam Jan, a resident of Malakand won an international award for her mosaic embroidery artwork with the theme of religious freedom. The award-giving ceremony was held in the British parliament on October 27. The parents of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai received the honour on her behalf as Ms Khanam Jan was unable not make it to England due to a delay in visa processing.

The Bellwether International, a not-for-profit organisation confers the awards on creative artists for their powerful artworks portraying religious freedom and expression. The recent awards ceremony was hosted by the United Kingdom Parliament.

Almas Khanam Jan had recently passed her intermediate examination and was seeking a scholarship to study either mass communication or law. “My award is a message for KP girls that they can do wonders if they show the will to do something different,” she told TNS.

Almas Khanam Jan said she was approached by Bellwether International to participate in an art competition with the theme of religious freedom adding that it took her three months to complete her artwork.

“It was a painting showcasing a girl attired in a typical Pashtun dress with a multi-colour mosaic reflective of signs and symbols associated with various religions. She is playing the flute and carrying a pitcher on her head. Soon after submitting it, I received an email from the jury of the award forum that my art piece qualified for the theme of religious expression and was placed first,” she narrated with a sense of pride.

“Unfortunately our girls face many obstacles. I consider myself lucky that my art is hanging on the walls in Great Britain. Many female artists and young people of my land are waiting for such an opportunity. I hope that one day every woman will be free to live her life,’ said Jan.

Young teacher Hira Ali of the Art and Design Department, University of Peshawar, won an international award in a paintings exhibition held at the Art College of Nanjing University, China, in 2022 October. Artists from 1,030 universities located in 20 countries participated in the contest and submitted around 19,938 entries. The theme of her work was Chinese heritage. It was a pen and coloured pencil drawing inspired by the style of work of Mughal miniature paintings and depicting the architectural beauty of a traditional Chinese pagoda, which was a reference image in a garden of Singapore.

The competition titled 3rd Oriental Creative Star Design ASEAN Division was arranged under the auspices of the International Economic and Technological Cooperation Centre of the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, at the Chinese university. Ali graduated from the Art and Design Department, UoP, with a major in textile design and has participated in several exhibitions and contests at the national level. She has also served in the art and design departments of some private sector universities and at Shaheed Benazir Bhutto University. She joined her alma mater as a teacher in 2019.

She said her favourite themes included architectural drawings, calligraphy and heritage buildings of Pakistan. Her favourite medium was pen and ink. She said she had also been working in pencil and charcoal, but mixed media was her forte. She said that the KP had great talent when it came to art, but the artists needed exposure, platforms and opportunities to display their talent. She said that parents and teachers should encourage the girl students to participate in such events.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist. He mostly writes on art, culture, education, youth and minorities. He tweets @Shinwar-9

Women climbing the ladder of success