A journey in tireless advocacy

In Local
March 31, 2024

While many working women excel at multitasking, Dr Fouzia Saeed's work presents a striking dichotomy. On one side, she works with women in crises, on the other she works with culture and creativity.

Dr Saeed wears many hats. Her struggle for women’s empowerment and against violence and sexual harassment that women are subjected to has been relentless and exceptional. With a doctorate from Minnesota, and early education in Peshawar, she is not only known as the founding member and executive director of Bedari, a voluntary, development NGO for women and children, but also as the co-founder of Mehrgarh, a centre for learning, and for setting up the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA). She anchored several TV shows including Yeh Log Kaun Hain, and authored several books including 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, and as executive director, she restored Lok Virsa.


MY: When and how did you start work on culture and gender issues in Pakistan?

FS: As a child, I always questioned restrictions on girls and tried to understand the reasons for it. In school and college, I tried to help girls who could not deal with impositions on their lives. Eventually, I set up a crisis centre called Bedari, in 1992.

MY: What was AASHA’s contribution in bridging the gender gap? Did you personally face sexual harassment?

FS: Yes, I faced sexual harassment at my workplace, fought a case and won it. It made me realise how difficult it is to raise this issue. Through a research study, I also found out that it was very common for women in all professions and even at home and public places. With a few like-minded organisations, I formed the alliance to tackle this issue at national level.

MY: You wrote a book on sexual harassment at the workplace, what kind of feedback did you get?

FS: I still get extremely positive feedback and many women say that they feel it is their story.

MY: The rule of law is not exemplary in Pakistan, but you are doing great work to end sexual harassment at work places. How hopeful are you?

FS: Getting a special law passed through the parliament was an outstanding achievement in 2010. Some of the implementation mechanism was built into the law and later our team was engaged in the implementation process. I was appointed as the head of the implementation watch committee by the then Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gillani. In the last 12 years, Maliha Husain, executive director at Mehrgarh, has worked hard on the implementation and been successful. She documented the process in a book called A Game Changer.

MY: What was UN’s reaction on your book?

FS: Initially they were not happy but since I wrote my whole process and not just a complaining narrative, gradually they cooled off. They asked me to train their staff in regard to sexual harassment. I do hear about some cases once in a while.

MY: What are the causes of sexual harassment in Pakistan?

FS: There are many. Whenever there is a power imbalance between men and women, the chances of someone abusing power arises. For instance, between teacher-student, boss and junior employee etc.

MY: Do you think, we should teach sex awareness/education in schools and colleges? Can our society handle this?

FS: We train students and employees, but it should become a part of their education. Young people take a lot of information, good or bad, from the net. Our society should be sensible and provide proper awareness and education to the youth.

MY: How is sexual harassment different in the western world as compared to Pakistan?

FS: It is quite common. There are many news stories that one comes across. One difference is that in other countries it is seen as a problem but in Pakistan men see it something to brag about.

MY: What strategies do you use to work with sex workers, their agents and clients?

FS: My research process was challenging and I had to come up with strategies to gain their trust and have them talk openly and honestly. I think maintaining a respectful attitude helps.

MY: While you were working on Taboo, how did you build a rapport with sex workers and their families?

FS: I befriended their mothers and ustads so the young women gradually began to trust me. I did not judge them.

MY: You are doing work for women rights and sexual harassment but the public cannot see your work on social media or internet, although it could help and support you.

FS: Some of it is there as resources. I have a website but I do not propagate each activity that I do because I am not into self-promotion. It takes away the group spirit of the larger team that I want involved in this kind of work.

MY: How did Lok Virsa help women gain visibility and participation?

FS: Our society tends not to allow women to creatively express themselves or to give them centre stage. At Lok Virsa, I made sure that women were able to perform, show their crafts etc. But primarily I joined it for my love of our heritage, folk arts and research. I was made in charge of their research programme and library.

MY: How would you compare women’s rights in Pakistan to that of its neighbouring countries?

FS: In some areas we are much behind and in others we are outstanding.


MY: The former Prime Minister Imran Khan appointed you as the DG of PNCA. Were you both on the same page on the gender and sexuality issue?

FS: Imran Khan did not appoint me. I was selected by a highly qualified panel, who selected me unanimously after a detailed interview.

MY: Tell us about your achievements for art, humanities and sociology as Director General at the Pakistan National Council for Arts (PNCA)?

FS: I tried to straighten out the institutional systems and get rid of the corruption. The institute would borrow paintings for exhibition and not return them in time. Sometimes the dance group was used for weddings and personal gatherings. I stopped all that. There was one case of several paintings by a senior painter whose widow wrote to us repeatedly and was given no response. I took up the case, followed the paper trail and eventually returned the paintings. There was a big reaction especially by the past heads who had ignored her earlier requests, but I did the right thing for which I got letters of appreciation from the artist’s wife and granddaughter.

MY: How do you handle the pressures and expectations in your work?

FS: The pressure increases when I am doing good work. Sometimes I think if I was not giving enough output, I might have had an easier time. Especially in our system, anyone who is straightening out the institutional systems faces a reaction as the system wants them out.

MY: How do you manage your time and commitments effectively?

FS: I build teams to work effectively and improve the system. I also link the activities to the larger context. During the pandemic, we had performing artists using their homes as a stage and we ran the concerts on zoom. They were quite thrilled with these new technologies. It is important to have a keen eye to figure out what people respond to and build up on that. Being present at the institutions’ programmes is good for the audience as well as it encourages the artists. People like having hosts and giving their feedback right away.

MY: Have you ever had to perform your duties in extreme weather conditions or challenging environments?

FS: Our bureaucracy can make working conditions extremely challenging. I saw that repeatedly in my last two jobs, as the head of Lok Virsa and later at PNCA.

MY: How did you stay motivated after you met with a serious accident?

FS: I was keen on setting up provincial offices of PNCA so I opened one in Jamshoro, Sindh, and another in Gilgit-Baltistan, improved the one in Lahore significantly. I was going to open one up in Balochistan and during my travels to remote villages, I had a terrible car accident that I miraculously survived. Thanks to some people from Balochistan government and my family members who arrived from Islamabad, that I was able to get medical help. No one cared in my ministry nor my institution had a staff of over 200, with just the director-general’s team of seven or eight people. I had seven directors working under me, but no one came. I was first taken to Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, then to a trauma centre in Quetta and eventually my sister and brother got me air lifted to Islamabad.

That was a rough time for me, physically and mentally. Instead of straightening out the system, if I had given more facilities to my directors, they would have shown more concern.

One of my directors who was in charge of transport, administration and HR wanted PNCA transport to pick up his children from a distant place, bring them for a music class and then drop them back. When I declined permission, he told me that in his position, he should have been assigned three cars, one for him and two for his family. I told him, that he would have to wait for another DG for this kind of favours and facilities. This would lead to the start of a negative campaign about me. Later, this person was given my job and responsibilities. Also, perhaps the ministry thought I was dead as they stopped my salary.

MY: What are your long-term goals as an activist, and how do you plan to achieve them?

FS: I want to do many things for my country but I do not plan to go back to working for the government, which I liked a lot, because I think they cannot stand someone who does the job well. Perhaps I will continue to work from civil society platforms or just as a citizen.

MY: After your serious road accident, do you still want to travel to remote areas?

FS: Yes, I will. Most of our artists and craftsmen and women live in the interior. Therefore, sitting in Islamabad can give me a feeling of being a VIP but it won’t help be do my job better.

MY: Are you comfortable as trainer? What training have you received?

FS: I have been training for the last several decades. My PhD focused on curriculum development and I enjoy designing learning spaces for different age groups and types.

MY: How do you handle rejection or criticism on your women right’s projects?

FS: I always have to make room within the hypocritical statements of relevant leaders. One has to have patience and courage to stand one’s ground.


Murad Yusufzai is a freelance contributor

All facts and information are the sole responsibility of the writer

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