Navigating the ups and downs of being a woman journalist in Pakistan
ver wondered what a career in journalism is actually like? What do you find after peeling away the many layers of glamour and gossip and reporters claiming they’ve got the next big scoop? Dr Erum Hafeez’s anthology of her work from her 25-year journey as a writer, freelancer and researcher encapsulates the experience. Hafeez, who has a PhD in mass communication and has been an associate professor of media sciences at Iqra University. She is also a mother and a homemaker. Her book, Life Literally: 25 Eventful Years of a Writer’s Journey, spanning over 388 pages, is divided into what Hafeez describes as a ‘hexagonal garland’ consisting of six categories, features (further classified by themes: social, education, media, health, relations and women), articles, columns, reviews, interviews and blogs. There is a special section at the end, dubbed as ‘life literally in clicks’, showing images of essential milestones in her journey. Every section features her work arranged in reverse chronological order – giving a perfect overview of both events that took place in Pakistan from 1996 to 2021 and her own growth in the profession. At the beginning of her career, her writings were based on her own opinions and interactions, as seen in her first published article, Striking Politics and Its Effects on Our Life for The News, on April 20, 1996. The article is written in first person and she talks about the impact frequent strikes in Karachi have on the average person, giving examples from her own life. As the years pass, her work becomes more research-based. Hafeez touches upon, as she says, “the diverse themes of culture, gender, education, health, media and relations” in the 100 pieces she has selected from nearly 150 published ones.
One of the most exciting aspects of reading this anthology was the feeling of travelling through time. The 2001 article written for Dawn, titled Telephone – A Need, Indeed! and the 2014 cover story for Aurora, titled Learning with Social, depict the stark difference in the methods of communication used by various generations. Going from descriptions of the constant telephone calls between friends and lovers two decades ago to the dramatic increase of social media use and chatting apps by teenagers a decade later, hammered in the idea of how quickly the world and its norms change. Hafeez also seems to be quite the expert in writing about problems children and youth face, describing their experiences in a non-judgmental manner. She has written many features about the issues students face in gaining an education, such as Is Our Education System Driving Students to Commit Suicide? (Dawn Magazine, October 26, 2016), Beyond Control (Dawn Magazine, July 9, 2006) and Those Poor Position Holders! (Dawn Magazine, April 12, 1998). “While a good teacher is a blessing, an incompetent one can easily turn a student’s life into hell. Students often lose their belief in the goodness of human nature….” This statement might appear a tad dramatic to adults, Hafeez realises how serious these concerns are to people of that age. Instead of dismissing the youth’s complaints, she takes them seriously. In Students in a Quandary (Dawn Review, June 8, 2001), she also voiced the issue of un-recognised educational institutions getting away with looting students by presenting them with degrees that hold no real value.
Her ability to be the voice of those often ignored by the authorities is amazing. In a 1999 feature, Whose Flag is it Anyway? she narrates the story of Afzal Hussain, a tailor from Karol Bagh, Delhi, who stitched the first-ever flag of Pakistan and has not received official recognition for it to this day. She introduces individuals working for the welfare of the society as in her 1999 feature, Living for a Cause. She also promotes organisations doing social work, such as KVTC (Karachi Vocational Training Centre), WADA (Women and Development Association), SOS Children’s Village and NICH (National Institute of Child Health).
A journalist must strive to publish the truth and put public interest over personal or political ones. American author and child protection consultant Andrew Vachss says, “Journalism is what maintains democracy. It’s the force for progressive social change.” Hafeez lives up to this standard. She doesn’t care about putting government officials on the spot or challenging unquestioned societal norms. In her 1997 column, St. Joseph’s: Facing the Problems of Nationalisation, she outlines the adverse effects of the government’s decision to nationalise educational institutes around the country and describes the shortcomings of the college’s administration with complete honesty, taking the opinion of the students currently admitted there into consideration. In her 2006 feature titled VIP Killers, Hafeez brings attention to a huge problem many look over: influential politicians, government and foreign officials blocking sections of major roads when they arrive in a city, which causes immense traffic problems and results in people being late not only to their schools and jobs but sometimes to emergency aid in hospitals, resulting in a large number of avoidable deaths.
As Hafeez herself mentions in her candid 2005 review titled, Choosing a Profession, journalism and media are male-dominated fields. 17 years later, the assessment still holds true. As such, her contribution as a working Pakistani woman and a mother is doubly impressive. By publishing her opinions on topics such as arranged marriages, reproductive health problems and larki dekhana, she allows a platform for issues faced solely by women to be discussed. She also gives women a role model in herself: although difficult, it is possible to maintain a career while managing a home. The flexible timings help.
Writing sometimes in a satirical and sometimes in a humorous tone, Dr Erum Hafeez provides an engaging as well an enlightening read. Narrating stories from her own life to great effect and representing different perspectives and switching from light to dark topics, she covers the ups and downs of being a woman journalist in Pakistan.
Life Literally: 25 Eventful Years of a Writer’s Journey
Author: Dr Erum Hafeez
The reviewer is a freelance journalist