Project Lead | Agency for Barani Areas Development
Here are her three pieces of advice:
Do not stay silent
Seek help when you can. Give help, all the time
Empower other women as much as possible
Can you introduce yourself?
I have been enrolled for 8 years in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). I was one of the first women to join the military in Pakistan. After that, I joined the Civil Service and I am currently working on Conflict Prevention and Water and Gender issues.
When I joined the PAF, I was doing a Bachelor Degree. I then pursued a Master’s Degree in International Relations here in Pakistan. Following that, I had the opportunity to do another Master in Public Policy in Oxford on a scholarship. It is at that moment that I decided to become a gender advocate as talking to people coming from around the world gave me different perspectives around issues. Before that, I had always assumed that the gender balance in Pakistan was the only way through, simply because I had never had the occasion to travel outside of my own country. Studying in Great Britain and exchanging with other colleagues about these issues made me realise that there was another way for women to
exist in my society. Apart from that, I am a member of the Build Peace and Aspen fellowships. Both have wonderful people coming from all around the world and we keep on talking and learning from each other. Education is the one thing that can change a life and it definitely changed mine.
You are currently a project lead at the Agency for Barani Areas Development. What kind of projects are you leading and what does a typical day look like to you?
My work is around water reservations. At the moment, I am leading two projects dealing with Geographical Information System (GIS) and mapping water reservations and water disputes. When a conflict is found, my job is to help communities to resolve it. My daily work routine involves the resolution of technical issues regarding the system and going on the field to meet farmers.
As part of my advocacy role, I try to involve other farming women in this project of water resolution. Many women work in the agricultural sector but are rarely accounted for it.
There is a cultural trait preventing women from taking the lead and having access to technology and innovations. Women are usually not confident enough to get involved but because I am a woman working in an organisation that deals with farmers, they are comfortable working with me. That, in return, gives me the opportunity to convince them to take part in all the technical advancements and innovations that the government is working on.
You write about Gender inclusion, Politics, and Military in Pakistan. Can you tell us more
about this advocacy role?
Being one of the first women in the military wasn’t easy. Growing up, I always wanted to be
a soldier but I knew it wouldn’t be possible because there was no space for us. But in 1999,
the government suddenly decided to open a quota for women to join the military.
Joining wasn’t even the hardest step as the military is a very paternalist structure. First of
all, we were not taken seriously. People thought the experiment would fail, and the military
didn’t want to take more women because the women they initially hired were not
considered as real soldiers. But I graduated with flying colours and was able to join the
program. I realised at that moment that the military, not only in Pakistan but all around the
world, was not conducive to women. I was harassed within the first 6 months of my first
position, and I have been able to denounce it only recently. I authored this article in the
Project Syndicate because we need to speak about these issues that women tend to silence.
My position allows me to have a certain influence through my experience. I use it because I
feel like it is my responsibility.
Can you tell us more about your 8 years in the Pakistan Air Force? What are the main
challenges you faced?
The first months were tough because the place they attributed to women was blurred.
There were some situations in which we were differentiated from our male colleagues. For
example, we were initially given white dresses instead of uniforms. There was a pre-
selection during which we could only do parades and salutes, before being fully part of the
military. In terms of practice and physical exercises though, expectations were the same for
men and women. However, they didn’t allow women to fly and go on the field. We were
assigned to the ground support department, which is related to administration services.
They only allowed women to fly four or five years ago.
Another challenge I experienced was loneliness. I was once in a base composed of 15,000
men where I was the only woman. Interestingly, I was commending a few hundred out of
them. But before that time, when I joined my first base, people would stand and watch me
while doing something as simple as walking from my office to another place. It was that
astonishing for the people around me that a woman wearing a uniform could give them
You recently wrote about the challenges that still need to be addressed. Is it getting better?
It is getting better but the major problem in the military is the avoidance of sexual
harassment. It is a very significant problem for military bodies all around the world. It gets
worst in conservative countries like Pakistan, where there is absolutely no data about sexual
harassment in the military. Nobody talks about it, nobody wants to. Again, elsewhere, things
are not drastically changing; the #metoo movement in the US reflects it well.
Things are happening but not as fast as they should. The problem is that, when you try to
denounce something, the chain of command triggered is more likely to contain men who
know the perpetrators of the crime. The second main issue is that military law does not
systematically allow to ask for help in the civil society. As a consequence, women are stuck
because they go through a lot of problems but remain invisible outside of the military. Amendments need to be done in a way to let this happen. When perpetrators are singled
out, they should not be protected. In most of the cases, these issues are being hidden under
the carpet when these men are within or closed of the chain of commands. We need more
discussions about this.
The military is legally based on an unquestioned obedience, which means that it is
sometimes impossible to even report harassment. And when women try, they are being
destroyed. These are the things that the military needs to focus on and resolve. We cannot
just pretend it doesn’t exist.
There is not much understanding of the psychological and physical issues women face. I
did believe at that time that if I stayed there and if more women joined, these issues would
receive more attention. Today, in Pakistan, men and the military, in general, do give more
importance to women and I think it is possible because women kept on pushing.
Is there a community of women in Pakistan trying to speak out about feminism and all these
There are a lot of women who talk about feminism, in different aspects. Gender education
at school is increasing, linked to reproductive health education.
At the moment, there are 12 million women voters missing from the voting system because
they have no identity card, whereas Pakistan is heading towards a general election. For
political reasons and religious beliefs, family members forbid women to have a civil identity. A
lot of women are advocating and campaigning for this to change.
We also had a very famous Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was one of the first female
prime minister in the world. But despite these things, Pakistan remains the second less
unbalanced gender equal country. Recently, a survey ranked Pakistan among the ten most
dangerous countries for women. Malala Yousafzai is the biggest example of this double
speed: she is a worldly known feminist activist but we all know that she was shot just
because she wanted to study.
It is not very easy, but there are women currently working to change things and speak out.
The progress is there. It just appears really slow to us.
What advice would you give to a young woman looking to follow these activist steps in
We should help each other. I always encourage women working in policy making and in
positions of power to mentor other women. Staying silent on issues that matter to us is not
a solution. We need to speak about everything: education, justice, equality, sexual
harassment. Women who are unable to speak out should at least seek help. And the women
in a position to help should hear them. I am a big supporter of womanhood and sisterhood.
It is common for men to spread out the idea that there is only one place at the table for
women, and suddenly, women are starting to fight each other in order to get that seat.
I disagree with this pattern: if we are being told that there is only one seat at the table,
we should be united into creating more seats. That should be our strategy.