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The rebel women of Pakistan

Meet the fighters from across the border who dared to disturb the patriarchal order

Social entrepreneur Sabeen Mahmud
Social entrepreneur Sabeen Mahmud

The publication of Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls in 2016 set off a trend. Since then, scores of such anthologies have appeared in different parts of the world, celebrating remarkable women and their legacies, especially from cultures and societies beyond Europe and the US. The latest addition to this subgenre is Fearless, written by Amneh Shaikh-Farooqui and illustrated by Aziza Ahmad. As the subtitle puts it, the book brings together “Stories of Amazing Women from Pakistan" from the inception of the nation in 1947 to the present. From champion weightlifter and squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir to the late chef Fatima Ali, the cast is drawn from colourfully diverse social backgrounds.

A cursory online search for women and Pakistan throws up sharp contrasts. On the one hand, Human Rights Watch states the reality in grim numbers: roughly 1,000 Pakistani women fall victim to “honour killings" every year. On the other hand, there are heart-warming stories about women who dare to challenge patriarchy in a conservative and often brutally cruel society. One such story is of the recently held Aurat March (women’s march) to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March across major urban centres.

Fearless intends to capture the complexity of women’s lives in the neighbouring nation. The brave women of Pakistan, it points out, number many, beyond Malala Yousafzai and the late Asma Jahangir, who the world seems to know the best. From stories of pilots to politicians, astronauts to classical dancers, the book covers a range and diversity that few of us—children as well as adults—are aware of. While most Indian readers have heard of Noor Jehan, Fatima Jinnah or Benazir Bhutto, not many know of aviator Shukria Khanum (1935-2017), physician Seemin Jamali (born 1961), or philanthropist Bilquis Edhi (born 1947).

In a political climate where relations between India and Pakistan remain fraught, with no imminent sign of easing, a book like Fearless could help normalize the idea of Pakistan among readers of all ages. There’s more to the rhetoric of Pakistan being India’s historical enemy: it is just another state in the subcontinent, beset with problems of its own. And with its heroes, celebrated or unsung, engaged in the good fight.

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