Suddenly one day, seeing hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes and hearths for no fault of their own, I realized that God Almighty has given me so much and there are so many people around me who deserved my time and love. It was time for me to contribute in my own limited capacity to help relieve the miseries and pain inflicted by violence, extremism and bigotry. I had to raise my voice for them and for my own growing children’s future. Ever since, I voluntarily work as a social activist, women and children rights campaigner in the troubled Khyber Pukhtunkhwa / FATA region of my country Pakistan, beside launching and editing an online magazine to bring the stories and issues of the troubled communities of the Af-Pak region as seen by the affected people to the outside world.
Who are you?
I was born in a lower middle class conservative family in a remote village in the Swat region of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan. In an environment where female education was a rarity, I was lucky to have a father who, being an educator himself, was ready to challenge the norm and ensured that I got formal higher education. The amount of trust and confidence that he built up in me drives me today.
To continue in my father’s spirit I chose to become a school teacher despite my education in Economics to fulfill my commitment to spreading education in the deeply conservative, backward and militancy prone areas of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KPK) and tribal regions of Pakistan. Hailing from these backward and deeply conservative and militancy prone areas; and having the privilege of being educated, my passion has always been to raise my voice against violence against women and children, social injustices, gender bias, and persecution of minorities. As I dwelt deeper into these issues by working with the communities, I realized the need for promoting the softer aspects of the society like culture, literature, music and poetry. I therefore developed a keen interest in writing on cultural issues, poetry and music to promote peace, tolerance and pluralism in our conservative society. Gradually I was actively engaged in helping the under-privileged children and women by doing community work and organizing educational programs as a volunteer. Ever since, I have been active on various forums in pursuit of my objectives including participation in discussions on various media channels and radio programs, organizing events on social issues, working towards children education by synchronizing and executing primary level educational development projects and help run informal schools for the downtrodden children. I also undertook philanthropic work in the earthquake and flood affected areas of KPK during 2008 and 2010. I have been speaking on literary forums on societal issues, to promote and further these objectives. I am myself a writer and poet whose area of interest is the promotion and preservation of indigenous culture, highlighting the local issues affecting the less privileged and downtrodden and spreading awareness about need for tolerance, peace and women rights. As a sample one of the events that I currently organized is reported as given in the link: http://www.dawn.com/news/1091783/ghani-khan-praised-as-staunch-protector-of-women-rights for which I have recently been awarded the Ghani Khan Appreciation Award from Rashid Shaheed Foundation, Peshawar.
b. My passion is to write on cultural, social and educational issues to engage the local people and use these mediums for promoting the softer side of the society and contribute in bringing a social change for better. I have been a regular contributor to the prestigious journal ‘Oxford Asian Textiles Group’ (OATG), published from Oxford on quarterly basis. My articles have been published in the subject magazine regularly from 2009 till 2012. Copies of the same are available on the internet at: http://www.oatg.org.uk/magazine-backissues.html
c. My active interest in journalism was the result of a frustration with the plight of the internally displaced people (IDPs) in the wake of Taliban atrocities and later military operations in my home districts back in 2008/09. There was so much misery and violence against the common masses, particularly women and children, but nobody from within these areas, who actually had sufficient knowledge and understanding of the nature of problems, was talking about it. I was frustrated that outsiders who had a scanty understanding of the actual situation were writing and speaking out about these issues. Another reason for this initiative was that very biased, inaccurate and sometimes misleading narrative was reaching the outside world. After consulting with some of my friends, I decided to launch a monthly e-Magazine “SAHAR-The Voice of Pashtuns” purely on voluntary basis with no support whatsoever, to address these issues in my own way. Not only was I personally affected because some of my family members were forced to flee their homes, but I was also extremely touched by the violence, intolerance, and miseries of the native people both at the hands of the extremists as well as the security forces. Unfortunately the mainstream media coverage wasn’t telling the actual picture. I thought it best to engage the local Pashtun people particularly the youth to speak up about the various issues so that a balanced and more informed narrative could be presented to the outside world. Simultaneously, I also wanted to give a forum to the local educated youth to discuss and debate among themselves the issues to develop and broaden understanding about the problems within the local society. The e-Magazine was launched in June 2009 as a monthly publication. During the course of time, I had to discontinue it for a year in 2011, because of several threats I received from the extremists as it was discussing and spreading knowledge about many issues that the mainstream media was not touching. It was also exposing the atrocities committed on the local people in the words of the local educated people themselves. As a result of these threats received through a variety of means, I temporarily stopped publication, however on the first available opportunity; I restarted it again as a quarterly magazine. The e-Magazine including all past issues can be found here: http://khyberwatch.com/Sahar/
The magazine, a singlehanded and voluntary effort has come a long way, and currently aims at a much broader spectrum, to spread awareness about the cultural, social and educational issues of the broader Af-Pak region populated by the Pashtun people. It also aims to provide a platform to the local youth to express their views and develop insight and skill to play a positive role in societal transformation.
My objectives are to contribute to social change, promote peace, tolerance and pluralism in my native region. My focus areas include:
- Promoting human rights, democracy and pluralism by focusing on women and youth.
- Focus on children rights, particularly girl child issues.
- Promotion of peace through cultural, literary activities and music.
- Focus on minorities issues
- Promotion of appropriate education in the FATA and KPK region through informal means.
I did not get any formal education in journalism nor do I have any organization or individual to back me up on this project that I undertook purely because of my own motivation. I am focusing on connecting with other likeminded people and have thus organized a volunteer group of young people named “SAHAR GROUP OF VOLUNTEERS” in order to continue my humanitarian work and social activism.
Give us your favorite quote and tell us why it means so much to you:
“A Woman Who Walks In Purpose Doesn’t Have To Chase People Or Opportunities. Her Light Causes People And Opportunities To Pursue Her”
When I chose the path of volunteerism, I looked around but neither I found a role model nor a way ahead. I started anyway to do something…anything to satisfy my soul and heart. Along the way, I found that women in our society neither needs a role model nor would they find opportunities; they have to be their own Role Model, chart their own way and create their own Opportunities.
What is your favorite book?
Being a book lover, I have read scores of books and many of which I really like but this question leaves me in a fix as which one to tag as my most favorite one. But I think Siddhartha – Herman Hesse, is one of the books that I really enjoyed reading. This book helps one look into one’s self and makes one ponder the larger questions of life. It’s also a super quick read that isn’t pretentious at all.
2. Who inspires/inspired you?
My father was a visionary and he inspired me tremendously. He always wanted his girls to be independent, well educated and well groomed free thinkers and wanted us to be enlightened human beings. He gave us wings to fly with. I am really blessed to be the daughter of such a multi-talented and hard working man with clear thoughts. My mother also remain a source of inspiration for me for her being so selfless, affectionate and sincere in her endeavors to bring the best out of us and groom us to be good human beings. She has invested all her time, energies and the best of her life’s moments on us to groom us well and become good members of the society.
3. What is the best lesson your mother/mother figure taught you?
The best lesson my Mom taught me (among many great lessons) was “Always believe in your abilities, to stand up for yourself and be honest”. She used to say “There is nothing more beautiful than a woman unapologetically her own self, comfortable in her own imperfections” and her advice to all her three daughters (including myself) would be that the way we treat ourselves sets the standard for others how we demand to be treated so we should not settle for anything other than respect and I think acting upon her words made a great difference in my life.
4. What advice would you give your 13 year old self?
Just chill. It’s time to dream, fantasize, and still believe in fairytales. There will come a time when all these things would seem redundant and you will be struggling for your rights in a real tough world.
5. What are your hopes for your daughter and son?
I have two sons and a daughter and I have the same wish for all of them. I want them to have firm belief in themselves, value whatever qualities they are blessed with, to observe nature, think freely and question everything that boggles their minds, have the confidence to explore the world, develop patience, tolerance and sense of perseverance and make use of all their gifted and acquired abilities to help make the world a better place.
6. What is the biggest trial you went through in your life and how has that changed you?
I believe all of us go through trials and some rough and tough phases throughout our lives that change us in a variety of ways. However, everything happens for a purpose. I consider myself a very lucky soul that I am blessed with a very supportive and loving husband. I had been very seriously ill and my prolong illness would many a times leave me with some strong bouts of depression but I always found my husband by my side whenever I felt blue or lost hope. I had to struggle with depression for quite some time even after my recovery but that phase of my illness taught me a new dimension of life and it made me familiar with understanding empathy which we all should have towards each other in testing times. That helped me better understand the outcomes of miseries, injustices, inequalities and malpractices that I found prevalent in my Pashtun society. I started feeling the pain of others and noticing the misery with which they were living.
7. Any regrets? What’s something that you wish you’d thought about more before you did it?
I normally don’t regret things as it would be more like crying over spilt milk. I might have made some wrong decisions in the past but that decision taught me a lesson for life and in the process I feel I have become more responsible and that has helped me avoid being impulsive or quick in making decisions.
8. How do you stay grounded in your work?
I always make sure to spare some time in my schedule to listen to some good music while I work on my computer. I spend time with my family and go on long drives mostly on weekends. Beside that I always seek solace in sketching, painting, cooking, embroidery, dress designing and gardening.
9. How do you bring about real change?
I believe I have a long way to go before I can bring about a real change, I am just adding a drop in the ocean. But for the time being, I want to create awareness and understanding of the issues that Pashtuns are confronted with through my online magazine SAHAR-The Voice of Pashtuns and my community outreach work. I also engage in other literary activities that I believe can bring about a positive change in our society. The promotion of education and art and literature can help restore the fading image of the marginalised Pashtuns who are stigmatised as extremists, terrorists and fanatics worldwide through fabricated efforts.
10. What do you hope to be remembered for?
I hope to be remembered as someone who gave voice and space to the most disadvantaged in my surroundings; primarily the women in Pashtun society. As someone who brought comfort and relief to those in need, and worked for the betterment of the Pashtun women and children who are victims of decades of war, conflict and violence and the wider Pashtun communities. Lastly, I hope to be remembered for being wholly myself throughout the work I do. I want to be remembered as someone who walked the walk and talked the talk; and who was unafraid to continuously evolve throughout her lifetime.
Message to Muslim Women:
Dear ladies. Salaam and greetings from Pakistan!!
It is indeed great feeling to be part of a really big family in this place on earth. I am truly proud to be a woman and willing to push society to recognize our strong values.
It is for the benefit of nature and human race that women be regarded as special, unique, and most of all an essential part of an endeavor to keep the human race moving and progressing – as she has the most critical role in creating! As ordained by Allah.
As a woman who grew up in a patriarchal society, I always aspired for and worked towards gender equality in any way I can, and it is very encouraging to know that many brave and courageous women around the world are working for the same goal today.
It is time to make women count and to celebrate their tremendous part in sustaining the human experience. Lets speak up against gender bias, injustices, domestic violence, rape, insults, stereotypes and educational and economic deprivation of women.
My message to all the women of the world:
Be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.
We Women mean a lot and it’s time to remind the world of that!
Azra Nafees Yousefzai
More About Azra:
SAHAR-The Voice Of Pashtun, a quarterly journal that I edit.
Oxford Asian Textiles Magazine, a quarterly that I write regularly for,
My articles can be reached at:
My poetry can be reached at: