'I conciously tried to promote women'

January 26, 2020

Has any term been more abused than ‘sexual abuse’, and any term more harassed than ‘sexual harassment’? Dr Fouzia Saeed talks about her struggle for women empowerment in Pakistan

Has any term been more abused than ‘sexual abuse’, and any term more harassed than ‘sexual harassment’? While its revival in the hands of media pundits has led to huge fortunes, the real and conceptual investigation was still being practiced by die-hard activists like Dr Fouzia Saeed who wouldn’t stop at one big and often glib idea, and who developed her ideas through a lengthy and painstaking process involving research, conception, and wide ranging results.

Social activist, gender expert, development manager, and author, Dr Fouzia Saeed is a multi-faceted personality. Whether as founding member and Executive Director of Bedari, or as the anchor of Yeh Log Kaun Hain? Or as Chief Executive of Lok Virsa, or as one of the founding members of Alliance Against Sexual Harrassment (AASHA) or as the co-founder of Mehrgarh, her relentless struggle to empower women and to promulgate the taskforce against violence against women has been exceptional. Author of Forgotten Faces: Daring Women of the Pakistani Folk Theatre, Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light District, and Working with Sharks: Countering Sexual Harassment in our Lives, she has recently assumed the office of the Director General at the PNCA, Islamabad.

The News on Sunday (TNS) sat down with Saeed for an interview.

TNS: When was your first entry in the spheres of Culture and Gender Politics?

FS: After finishing my Bachelors, Masters and Ph D programmes at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, I returned home in 1986. I had always been well-rooted in Pakistan, having proceeded on to pursue higher education from the University of Peshawar. Two areas of all have been of major interest to me in life: women’s rights due to my own experiences as a woman, and because of the hurdles women have to face every step of the way; and culture, which, I didn’t know, could be a field of pursuit in its own right.

I had always been very interested in folk dance. Since childhood, I had a collection of costumes from every region and every folk group within a region. During and well after school, whenever there was a cultural show, I would perform, it was part of my being. When I went to the States as a student, I would arrange Pakistan Nights every now and then as an organiser and a mobiliser. At the same time, I was participating in student politics. It was an obsession that continued to haunt me through the very end of my stay.

Having earned a Ph D in Education, I wanted to join the Open University upon my return. I did join the Allama Iqbal Open University but was disenchanted with its dirty politics. Having been very fond of Lok Virsa since I was a child, I ended up joining, as Deputy Director Research during Uxi Mufti’s tenure in 1988. It was pretty much my very first job, and my earliest grooming was in the field of culture albeit in a formalised manner. I must say that Lok Virsa was highly productive in those days, geared mostly towards the promotion of performing arts. People used to throng to Lok Virsa to purchase audiocassettes of folk music released by the institute. It was around that time that I ended up befriending folk dance troupes, minstrels, musicians, artisans, craftspeople and troubadours alike.

TNS: You came across Bali Jatti while researching for the book on women folk theatre. Why do you think she’s been outstanding??

FS: Around the time I had the library under me, I started research on women’s role in folk theatre. Despite my interest in the larger areas of cultural activity, I zoomed in on women invariably, resulting in a comprehensive study of women in folk theatre.

Bali Jatti had always intrigued me but I’d never met her. I found out about her from my colleagues. What got me interested in her was the fact that she was the only female theatre director ever. Women normally appeared in roles of a dancer or a performer or occasionally as a heroine but they were never managers. I was interested in discovering how she managed to survive the highly male-oriented, chauvinistic environment where you could not converse or communicate without foul language amidst cut-throat competition; where you had to deal with the male police, and twist an arm or two to get your own space. That was a fascinating journey!

Bali Jatti used to live in Lahore in the area around Shahnoor Studios on Multan Road with her sons, surrounded by stuntmen and extras, tailors and sidekicks, and smalltime artistes. It was an amazing milieu. Bali Jatti came across as a bitter woman initially who didn’t want to see anybody. I had to make my way into her heart. She probably saw her reflection in my get-up – what she could also identify with – but it took me months if not years to get everything out of her.

What fascinated me the most was the combination of stigma and glamour in performing arts. Artistes, especially women, have to live with it. While it fascinates me, on the one hand, on the other it pains me. We often talk about promoting performing arts in a clichéd expression but when we unpack it, it’s full of anguish, hardships and challenges because it’s a world of stigmas with many vicissitudes. I wanted to know how these women operate: they wear burqa publicly, say their prayers backstage yet they dance onstage, flirt with men and use swear words. They wipe off their make-up, finish the stage show around three in the morning, get continuously beaten up by their husbands, and yet hand them over all the money that they earn. I wanted to explore this entire dramatic scenario.

TNS: What attracts women who may be economically sufficient to the world of prostitution?

FS: Since most of them are born there, that is their career and their profession. Almost ninety percent of women who join the profession come from that area. Things are different today. When I was investigating the phenomenon for my book, I was looking at the traditional ways of prostitution. Since most women born in the red-light district are brought up to think that there’s nothing wrong with prostitution, and since their socialisation is conducted along these lines, they end up adopting it as their full-time profession. They are conscious of the fact that they are the hope, the future of their families, and that their parents are looking up to them for survival.

The richer the customer, the better the prospect. If the client turns out to be an official, their respect doubles. If, on the contrary, the client is a small-time businessman, the chances are slimmer. There was a time when jewellers were the prime clienteles. It is a complete culture in itself, and I studied it as such. The tradition is that the best of the lot is picked up by the film industry. Women in that profession often pray to be selected by film directors and producers because that helps them come full circle. The lesser talented among them join the stage while the least talented stayed behind. In early days, when a prostitute would switch her role from the red light area to the silver screen, she would start to groom herself, like some of our older actresses. She would give up prostitution altogether. And they would switch over at a relatively young age, customarily before sixteen. They would be eyed out generally at the age of thirteen, and taken into the industry.

Then came the time when popularity in the film industry would act as a tool for marketing to boost their rates, turning it into a soliciting business. Some of our actresses would act in films while indulge in mujras on the side. During the era that followed the ‘90s, they became increasingly popular onscreen while earning millions from a single private mujra, taking only a select clientele.

My entire research towards Taboo was an expose of the so-called social morality shedding light on the distinction between a pious woman and a fallen woman.

TNS: Why do most women from the bazaar want to get married into ‘respectable’ families?

FS: This is how hierarchies are constructed. They find protection in that. Not because they are afraid but because our men have a primal instinct. When they know from the mainstream that a woman is on her own, they stalk her to death. This is the reason why many actresses end up accepting proposals from film directors or even producers thinking their money and power will protect them. They carve a niche for themselves to seek protection that may ultimately lead to abuse. Sometimes, the director/husband restricts the growth of the actress, and so forth. There is a pattern of dynamics that follows. Usually, they do not have access even to their own resources. You’d find similar stories in India, in Hollywood where Doris Day can be quoted as an example. She was penniless in old age. These are the complexities that engulf performing artists that follow a common pattern worldwide.

While talking about the world of visual arts, I would like to refer to Salima Hashmi’s book where she recounts the days when women would sign their paintings with a man’s name. Same had been the case with female poets.

They wear burqa publicly, say their prayers backstage yet they dance onstage, flirt with men and use swear words. They wipe off their make-up, finish the stage show around three in the morning, get continuously beaten up by their husbands, and yet hand them over all the money that they earn.

TNS: What was AASHA’s contribution in bridging the gender gap?

FS: When I was working for the UN, I faced sexual harassment. Like most women, for three consecutive years I struggled to resolve it myself. The only solution was to resign but I didn’t want to. When I filed the lawsuit, almost all the women working there came together stating they had similar experiences. We fought the case for two years – the most torturous two years of my life. Finally we won the case, that’s when AASHA was born.

The realisation that despite our education, our progressive backgrounds, and our confidence in ourselves, we had to suffer a lot was insufferable. We decided to follow it through despite enormous pressure on us, either to back off or split. If we had to suffer so much, imagine what the factory worker has to go through?

AASHA started as a movement with like-minded people. We drafted the Anti-sexual Harassment Policy.

The next step was to get the policy implemented. We went to several organisations. Some reacted by calling ‘sexual harassment’ obscene. When democracy returned to the country, we tabled the law as a bill. For three years, we had to lobby for it. Some of our politicians showed support, and by 2010 two laws were passed. One covered the entire population, men and women alike while the other pertained to management in the formal sector. It was a mega breakthrough and a game changer. Ever since, women’s history has changed.

TNS: Certain crafts and their execution have almost always been the mainstay or domain of the male component, with the sole exception of embroidery. How did Lok Virsa help the female counterpart gain visibility and participation in adding to the material culture?

FS: I consciously tried to promote women during my stay at the Lok Virsa, whether in their output or in their work ethic. Even today, when I run into these women they often acknowledge my advice and guidance. What women would do previously was stand behind men when it came to marketing their skills. I offered them stalls during the Mela, and gave them the confidence to market their product themselves.

Embroidery is just one part of it. The fact is that there are many female embroiderers who can connect with on another. But in other fields, there is no marked visibility of women. As soon as a big order comes their way, the men take over, turning women into piece-rate workers.

I truly believe that acknowledgment and ownership are very encouraging steps. But a cultural institute cannot create livelihood for the craftspeople. It can plant trends in the society, and then it’s for the society to create avenues of livelihood. Like, for instance, how many performances can we possibly have by a single qawwal – once a year or twice a year at the most? We need to have a society that sustains the livelihood of artistes. Take a painter, for example. He can sell his painting only to an elite buyer. We need to move boulders. Whether it’s the governmental policies or challenges posed by conservatives. What institutions like us can do is to remove those boulders, like, for instance, NOCs for a dance performance. You don’t need an NOC to pull the trigger but you need an NOC to perform! No one should ever vacate progressive space.

TNS: How would you compare the status of women’s rights in Pakistan to that of its neighbours?

FS: It’s a complex question. Societies are not homogenous. There are so many categories and so many layers to a society that one segment supports a group while the other condemns it. Let’s take the sexual harassment law. When the law was implemented, we had it publicised aggressively. Thousands of cases surfaced. In the first year, more than a thousand cases came to light. The law was passed in 2010, and a few months later devolved. The law had by then become increasingly popular because the culprits were being caught. At that point in time, the provinces decided to adapt it. They started to amend it and repeal it which was totally uncalled for. The laws that were passed before the devolution were good for the entire country. As far as the amendments are concerned, sexual harassment law has had a record-breaking history. A lot many people are not aware of the fact that we were the first ones in the subcontinent to promulgate this law.

TNS: Why was Mehrgarh founded?

FS: We started Mehrgarh in 2005. I had a background in championing women’s rights, while my brother was a peace activist. We had been struggling to establish a progressive society on our own. We felt that our younger generation was not sensitive to collective pain and collective solutions. That was rather frustrating. We had already started AASHA in 2000, but this was another layer of our work. Both Kamran and I had worked with the youth.

You heard about a rape incident. The news stayed on your mind for a couple of minutes, and then you moved on with your life. That’s something that bothered us – why doesn’t it affect us to the extent where we take action against it? Why don’t we all take to the streets, protest, and seek justice? Why didn’t we question its happening, in the first place? We did an analysis and realised that there were no training grounds for the youth. There were neither news agencies where mentors would groom younger journalists nor academies or cafes. That’s when we decided to start a training centre where workshops would be held and training offered in mediation and leadership, where an all-round grooming would help the younger lot exercise their skills in any which field of pursuit. We introduced our very first course in 2005. We used to hold very intense summer camps geared towards unsettling the preconceived mindset and building it anew.

Mehrgarh is an institute which strives to fill the gaps in the larger civil society. Mehrgarh consequently became the secretariat of AASHA, and played a seminal role in the implementation of the sexual harassment law.

TNS: Whenever it comes to the promotion, projection and conservation of arts and culture, the PNCA’s response is: “The coffers are empty!” How do you envision the promotion of arts and culture in the absence of any funds and/or resources?

FS: There is no dearth of resource – it’s just a matter of priority. When I joined Lok Virsa for three years, the Ministry had no money for the programmes but we did a tremendous amount of programming which was unprecedented in years. Funds get generated if you have the right intentions. There was no expenditure involved in eighty percent of the work I did at Lok Virsa.

As an institute, inviting artistes and paying them off is not our sole job. There are several policy issues that are yet to be resolved. Provinces have funds and cultural institutes we can collaborate with. Take, for instance, Mandwa, initiated as the most popular programme at Lok Virsa. We brainstormed to initiate a programme that did not involve funding per se. I am not saying I don’t need resources; all I am saying is that they won’t be my excuse.

The author is an art critic based in Islamabad

Dr Fouzia Saeed talks about her struggle for women empowerment in Pakistan