If you haven’t picked up Fearless: Stories of Amazing Women from Pakistan yet, you should. Amneh Shaikh Farooqui’s book looks at 50 Pakistani women and how they contributed to the country’s social, economic and cultural achievements.
In conversation with SAMAA Digital, Amneh talks about her inspiration, the first woman and what this means for Pakistani women.
According to Shaikh-Farooqui, her motivation to write the book definitely came from home. “I owe much of who I am to my mother, Perveen Shaikh, an authentic Fearless girl! Being raised by a pioneer of the microenterprise movement in Pakistan gave me the advantage of seeing my first female role model in action, fully supported by my father, who valued her career,” she said. “It’s no surprise that I want the same for my children! A world in which they believe anything is possible for both boys and girls.”
Her children played a vital role in Amneh’s decision to write Fearless. Her daughter, an avid reader, was reading Girls who Rocked the World, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, about Frida Kahlo and Joan of Arc but “there were hardly any South Asian women for her to read about”.
“Malala sometimes made the cut but no one else really did. I became a mother again and this time to a story-obsessed son and I began to think more deeply about Chimamanda Adichie’s warning about the dangers of a single story and the stereotypes it perpetuates,” she said. “This kind of incomplete narrative surrounds us and does more damage than we realize, especially to young children. We continued to read together and I recall my children’s excitement when we would find someone familiar: “Mama, look! There is someone from Pakistan.” But this was rare and it had begun to bother me.”
Around the same time, Amneh and a friend were beginning to get interested in the idea of running gender workshops for children and young adults. “While we were brainstorming for the content, the gap in literature around amazing women from the region became even clearer,” she said while talking to SAMAA Digital.
It was this gap that helped Amneh take the next step. “ I decided to write a local version, inspired by Rebel Girls. At the time, the goal was to develop material that could later be used as in our training work,” she said. “I was so excited about this because while women globally face challenges, Pakistani women are impacted by particular and varied systems of oppression that can often overlap and work together to repress their voice and spirit.”
According to Shaikh-Farooqui, this makes it very important for young Pakistani boys and girls and their parents to see their own lives, cities, contexts and skin tones reflected in female leaders and inspirational figures from the country that have awed the world.
“It is so hard to think about one woman from the book as personal inspiration, having researched and read about them the way I have, I feel so connected to their struggles and stories,” she said.
There’s Syeda Ghulam Fatima who works at the risk of her life to free modern-day slaves in brick kilns, and with her simple message that no one should be allowed to make people work for them by beating and chaining them? “Or Perveen Rehman, who knew the odds against which she fought and the risks she incurred in standing for the rights of the poor”.
“I did feel incredibly moved by the story of Fatima Jinnah, a woman I’ve heard about all my life but really knew so little about,” Amneh said. “She should be lauded as one of the foremost feminist icons of the country but instead is often relegated to a variety of idiotic roles ranging from bitter spinster to jealous nand, depending on what you are reading. Why we don’t hear the expression ‘female founder’ in the context of the creation of Pakistan? Why is Fatima just Jinnah’s sister who took such good care of him and later, she is the maternal, Madr-e-Millat, the mother of the nation?”
To Amneh, Fatima was agitator and a stateswoman, a presidential candidate, and a dental surgeon and a trailblazer in every sense of the word. An extraordinary woman, at a time when extraordinary women were thought deeply dangerous. “Honestly, my long-list was 180 women – coming to just 50 was one of the hardest calls to make,” she explained.
From Fatima Jinnah, Majida Rizvi, Shamim Ara to Qandeel Baloch and Malala, Amneh has written extensively on Pakistani women and how they made their mark.
The book was launched back in February and is available on Amazon and Liberty Books.