Posted by Guest Writer

“I am trying to build a bridge through paintbrushes.”

A non-fiction book representing some bad-ass brown women called Pakistan for Women: Stories of women who have achieved something extraordinary grabbed my attention and of many more, right after its announcement. The first book of its kind to be published in Pakistan, brings together more than 50 stories of real women, from mountaineers to astrophysicists to doctors to more. All these stories are groundbreaking because they shaped Pakistan to be what it is now, as it is progressing.

Today, I sit down with the author and artist of Pakistan for Women, who is a 23-year-old neuroscience student based in the Uk.

Guest Writer: How would you describe yourself?

Maliha Abidi: I am an artist who likes to celebrate women through her work. I am slightly obsessed with coffee and also, traveling. I am currently studying neurosciences at the University of Sussex. Art is my way of expressing my opinion on the things I believe in and also contribute to the change I wanna see in society for its betterment. Culture inspires me immensely and part of my inspiration drives from there as well.

GW: Why did you decide to write this book?

MA: I decided to write and illustrate Pakistan for Women because being a Pakistani, I see that there is a lot of talent in my country and stories of excellence. Being a feminist, I see that there are many women that we need to celebrate because I don’t think we do that enough.

Being a feminist, I see that there are many women that we need to celebrate because I don’t think we do that enough.

From mountaineers to astrophysicists to educators, Pakistan has those stories and this book advocates for the idea that if these women can achieve their dreams through hard work and dedication, so can all the girls, reading their stories. It is the first book of its kind to be published in Pakistan. It celebrates women from all walks of life.

GW: Why women?

MA: Because I am a woman and the world is a little different for us. The daily challenges or the journey to achieving something is different and so we must learn from the closest examples. When I learned about their stories, it inspired me and so also led me to the idea of bringing all of the stories under one book and share with other girls and women, so they feel inspired – the same way I did.

GW: As a brown girl, how big is this part when it comes to your identity?

MA: Being a brown girl is the biggest part of my identity. I come from more than two countries, I’d like to believe. Pakistan and India. I was born in Pakistan but my father, he was born in India in 1963, way after partition so that makes me half-Indian. I also moved to America at the age of 14 so that was a cultural shock for me. Each of these places and stories has taught me something new. Like, how it is different to be brown in Pakistan than in India or in America. I also think that my heritage is the most beautiful thing I have. It is a privilege to come from such a cultural background which is why I am interested in stories, telling stories through my medium and showing the power of brown women, but also all women.

GW: In your book trailer you mention how some people discourage little girls from going after their dreams. Did you face anything of that sort which led you to think the way you do today?

MA: Thankfully, no. when I say “No” I mean that no one who I value in my life ever discouraged me and the ones who did, I couldn’t care less about their opinions because they never knew enough about me or about art to pass that opinion in the first place.

The people I value, for example my father, my husband, my uncle Sajjad, my grandparents, my Nano, and my friends, were always supportive. But this also means that I am privileged. No, not money-wise, I come from a middle-class family. When I say privileged, I mean that my family and friends understood my vision and respected my art. Not everyone is surrounded by such people and that is where my work as an artist comes in. On a journey to where I am trying to build bridges out of paintbrushes, I try to be the voice of those who need it the most. It can vary from a conversation with parents where you try to convince them to let you study or pursue a certain field to standing up against the harshness, or when you face sexual harassment.

I feel that as someone who has not experienced these things, I can help those who have. Because the victims have lost a lot already and they might be scared that if they go on, raise a voice, they might lose more so we as a society need to bring together our mediums together. Many of us have a platform, thanks to social media. So a simple post can boost someone’s confidence and can let them know of your support.

GW: I have seen some posts about desi aunties and uncles you made on your stories or social media. How does standing up for women empowerment differ from standing up against these desi aunties?

MA: Basically, these people are characters in our society who are truly bored, have nothing better to do than judge and try to scare the ones younger than them. I have had encounters with people where they try to trash a certain passion a younger one holds, simply for their own entertainment, not realising how they can ruin someone’s confidence with their snarky comments.

They are supposed to be our elders and the ones teaching us about our values and when I see them be petty, be irresponsible. As elders, how can you attack someone who is 20-30 years younger than you and more importantly, why? Just because you are from a different time? Or you are bitter? Or it is because you want your kids to feel more confident by witnessing the way you bring someone else of their age down?

This happens a lot through comparison and especially to someone who doesn’t follow the desi protocols in gatherings. Through gossip or one’s need for validation, these conversations amongst desi uncles and aunties take place. We are not supposed to reply because we should always respect our elders? Yet elders can do whatever even when they clearly are not acting like the adults they are supposed to be. This is where my rants for Desi uncles and aunties come from.

GW: As a Muslim woman, have you ever felt that your identity got in the way of you being a feminist?

MA: Feminism is about women rights and equality. I believe Islam preaches just that. The challenges many women face in the Muslim community don’t actually drive from religion but from culture. Men use religion as a shield to protect themselves which then make Islam take the blame for their cowardice acts to suppress a woman.

The challenges many women face in the Muslim community don’t actually drive from religion but from culture.

There are examples present in major Muslim countries of this behavior such as Saudia Arab, but the reality of Islam is very different which can be learned through studying it briefly. In short, Islam doesn’t stand in my way of being a feminist, but it actually empowers me.

GW: Were you expecting the kind of buzz your book has generated, not only in Pakistan but internationally?

MA: Not at all. I was expecting that even if one girl reads my book and gets inspired, that is enough for me. But the waves of support and love I have received shows that how much people want to contribute to women empowerment and the change we can bring if we come together. I am so grateful with the response and I am so thrilled that my book will be in hands of many young ones who can take inspiration from it.

In Pakistan for women, each work of art and the ideas behind these stories sound incredible and I cannot wait to receive my copy of the book. My only regret is that I wish I had a book like this while growing up but I am glad that now many girls will. Thank you Maliha for taking out the time to speak with on your vision of women empowerment.

Also read: In Conversation With Malvika Raj: Dalit Madhubani Artist


FII thanks Maliha Abidi for taking out time to do the interview. Pakistan for women comes out this March and is currently available for pre-order on Kickstarter. You can also follow Abidi’s work on Instagram and Twitter.

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