In quest of progress and development: Aysha Baqir and women’s rights in Pakistan
Aysha Baqir in conversation with Koi Kye LeeAysha Baqir, is an author with mission, vision and commitment. A development consultant in Singapore, she was born and raised in Pakistan. She has recently launched her powerful, debut novel titled Beyond the Fields. Growing up in Pakistan, it was not a norm for parents to send their daughters to colleges abroad. But for Aysha, things were different as her parents agreed when she won a scholarship to pursue her studies at Mount Holyoke College. Her university experience sparked her passion for development and Aysha chose to return to Pakistan where she discovered that girls and women in villages needed access to economic resources before they could voice their demands for social justice.
She founded Kaarvan Crafts Foundation in 1998, shortly after completing her MBA. A pioneering economic development not-for-profit organisation, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, is focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women. Aysha headed the foundation until 2013 when she relocated to Singapore. She is a member of the Singapore Writers Group since August 2013 and is currently working on her second novel.
Kye Lee: Your debut novel, Beyond the Fields, is hauntingly beautiful. How did the idea come about for this book? What moved your muse? Had you ever written before? Did any writers, films or art have anything to do with it?
Aysha: Beyond the Fields is the story about a young village girl called Zara. Zara is carefree – she has dreams, she wants to study, and wants to become someone important. She loves kairis (raw mangoes); so, she disobeys her mother and steals into the orchard. And then on one ordinary day, Zara’s twin sister, Tara, the one she is closest to in the whole wide world, is kidnapped from the fields while they are playing a game of hide and seek and raped.
Having worked in the villages of Punjab in Pakistan for over fifteen years, I wanted to show the plight of village girls and women. Thousands of girls and women are assaulted each year and the abuse continues without any substantial family, community, or legal support. And, just not in Pakistan, but across cultures and continents.
I deliberately set the story under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. I was twelve years old when my mother dragged me to a march called by WAF or Women’s Action Forum. Being an introverted teenager who studied in American School, I didn’t want to go. But my mother insisted saying it was important for me to see what was happening in our country.
The protest was for Safia Bibi — a young blind girl a few years older than me — who had been raped by her employer and his son. She didn’t report the crime. Because she showed clear signs of pregnancy and was unmarried, it was assumed she had premarital sex. Her failure to prove that she was raped prompted the judge to sentence her (under the Hudood ordinance) to three years of imprisonment and 15 lashes. The ruling cast her as the perpetrator instead of the victim. Her rapists were never prosecuted and did not spend any time in jail.
At the protest, I stood with my mother along with hundreds of other women — and the memory of us standing under the sweltering sun for hours with other women protestors jammed across the mall road demanding justice for Safia Bibi haunts me to this day and to this day I shudder thinking that if it wasn’t an accident of birth, it could have been me. I wrote Beyond the Fields to start a discussion to challenge the unjust mind-sets that condemn and punish girls and women who have been raped and don’t stop talking about the issues until we create the change we owe to girls and women across the world.
Finally, I wrote Beyond the Fields, to allow the readers to see the lives of rural folk in Pakistan — they possess incredible strength and resilience. It is a glimpse into what makes them laugh, cry, betray, and come together.
Kye Lee: You founded the Kaarvan Crafts Foundation the aim to help empower rural women towards being self-sufficient and this was before you wrote the novel. What inspired you to establish this foundation? Can you tell us a little more about what exactly you do?
Aysha: I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. Graduating as the valedictorian of my class I won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. In the first week of school, I took a class in International Relations and it sparked a passion for economic development. Why were some nations poor yet others not? Whey were the economic and social indicators of some nations improving while others worsening? Until then I had been cocooned in my school life – academics, sports and activities. My classes in Economic Development and International Relations opened my eyes to the poverty around the world and in my home country, Pakistan. And in that one class, I realised that I knew nothing about it.
Upon my return to Pakistan, I saw that the poor didn’t need my sympathy – they needed access to economic resources and networks before they could voice their demands for social justice. In 1998, armed with an MBA from LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences), I founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organisation, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women.
Kye Lee: Has running and managing the foundation influenced your writing in any way? Does it help or deter your creative flow of juices?
Aysha: I was the CEO of Kaarvan until 2013 when I relocated to Singapore and to date I remain on the Board of Directors of the Foundation. The biggest challenge is writing Beyond the Fields was the complete switch from writing research-based donor proposals using formal language and specific guidelines to writing a fiction in the first person.
The momentum or the spark in the writing process came from the time I had spent in the villages and the voices of the village women. During the time I spent in the villages, my life interfaced closely with girls and women and my admiration and respect for their determination, strength and humor in times of despair grew immensely — with so little they managed to achieve so much. The characters are fictional, but the voices are real. The characters in Beyond the Fields challenge the roles that have been defined for them, determined instead to persevere and achieve their dreams.
Kye Lee: Some of the projects by the foundation was carried out in remote villages in Punjab. Did these projects inspire you to set the book’s location and also breathe life into the characters?
Aysha: Yes, the setting of the novel was motivated by the villages in which Kaarvan had worked and carried out projects. The vast wheat fields, mud houses, the thin grey roads… the imagery was inspired from real villages that I had visited and worked in for years. However, the characters in Beyond the Fields are not based upon any one real person or personality. Yet they possess many of the traits and characteristics of village folk I have met.
Kye Lee: Beyond the Fields centres its narrative around grief and family bond before addressing crucial issues such as rape and women empowerment. Why did you choose to focus on these themes?
Aysha: I wanted Beyond the Fields to be true to the life of any village girl or woman in Pakistan. What the western world defines as “grief” is the reality for millions of village women. Yet, the girls and women continue to persevere and overcome obstacles with determination. When I started working in the villages I was amazed and inspired by their strength — they are true life heroes and I have learnt many life lessons from them.
I chose to focus on family bonds as a critical theme in the novel because family is the starting point of providing support to victims of rape and sexual assault. If any change is to happen, it needs to start from the family — which needs to be source and the building block of strength to the victim. If the family shames the victim and hides the crime in fear of lost “honour” or ostracisation from the community, we will never see any change.
Kye Lee: In your story, you touched on the political landscape of Pakistan including the introduction of the Hudood Ordinances in the country. Given a choice, would you have tried to expand these further?
Aysha: Majority of Pakistanis, especially in the rural areas, lack access to and have limited knowledge about the laws or the changes in laws within the country. Hence, Zara, the villagers, and even the characters she meets in Lahore had limited knowledge about the Hudood Ordinance. As in real life, they relied on what other people told them and the stories they heard.
However, I could have added notes at the end of the story to detail and expand the Hudood Ordinanceand this would have helped the reader to gain a clearer understanding.
Kye Lee: You grew up in Pakistan and, later, received a scholarship to further your studies at Mount Holyoke College in the United States. Did you have a hard time convincing your parents to let you pursue your studies abroad?
Aysha: I grew up in a middle-class family in Lahore. I attended the Lahore American School because my mother taught there, and it was easy to coordinate our timings. When I entered High School, my parents told me that I would follow in my elder sister’s footsteps and attend a local college. However, midway during Grade 12, my academic counsellor called me into her office to tell me that I had an excellent chance of being the Valedictorian of my class and I would be making a mistake by not applying to colleges abroad.
No girl from my family had ever attended college abroad and initially my parents were unsure about sending me as well, but my teachers encouraged me to apply to colleges and my parents didn’t stop me either. Once I received an offer from Mount Holyoke College, my extended family and my parents’ friends tried to dissuade my parents saying that I would not return home or I would marry a foreigner, but my parents upheld their promise of allowing me to attend college abroad if I received a scholarship.
Kye Lee: Your book touched on female empowerment and how honour for women is defined by their virginity, how it can be easily shattered by men, how women are held solely guilty for a rape committed by men who go scot free after the process. Has the attitude to female empowerment changed over the years in Pakistan? Do you think your writing can help inspire a change?
Aysha: The laws regarding rape and sexual assualt have changed in Pakistan – for example, rape no longer falls under General Zia’s notorious Hudood Ordinances. If a case of rape if filed, then a formal judgment must come within three months, and refusal or delay of public servants refusing to register a rape case can result in jail time for officials. These amendments along with millions of women joining the workforce (informal or formal sector) have helped to change attitudes towards female empowerment in Pakistan, however it will take time to fully remove the burden of honour from a girl’s or woman’s shoulder, especially in the rural areas of Pakistan. I hope that my writing will help to promote and spread the change in thinking and action, not only in Pakistan but also across the world.
Kye Lee: Beyond the Fields also touched on child marriages as both Zara and Tara were frequently eyed by mothers looking for prospective brides for their sons. What is your take on this, and do you think Pakistan would pass the Child Marriage (Restraint) Act to raise a girl’s marriageable age to 18?
Aysha: I think it is imperative for Pakistan to pass the Child Marriage (Restraint) Act to raise a girl’s marriageable age to 18 and it is also imperative to ensure appropriate actions are taken to implement this law and ensure that the perpetrators are punished. In May 2019, Pakistan’s Senate passed a bill proposing the marriageable age for girls, under the Child Marriage (Restraint) Act, 1929, be raised to 18. Now it has to pass through the National Assembly. According to the United Nations at least one in three girls are married off in Pakistan before the age of 18. The Child Marriage (Restraint) Act, 1929 states that the legal age of marriage for girls is 16 whereas it is 18 for boys.
Kye Lee: Did you face writer’s block while writing Beyond the Fields? What was your hardest scene to write?
Aysha: Once I started writing, I realised I loved the writing process and the characters and story came alive in my mind. I think the toughest scene to write was about the assault. It was a difficult decision and I deliberated over it for days, but in the end I realised I had to be true to the story and the message to the readers. I won’t say more because I do not want to give too much away either.
Kye Lee: Do you have any plans to write a second book and if you have, what would it be? Can you share a little bit more about the book?
Aysha: I have started work on my second novel. It is about the quest for social justice and deception and betrayal — a story about what connects a case of disappearing girls in a slum to an expat working in an international non-governmental organisation (INGO) in Singapore.
Koi Kye Lee is a senior journalist with an appetite for current affairs and politics. She has worked in both Malaysia and Singapore. Her first fiction was published in Write Out Loud, a compilation of short stories by young Malaysian writers.
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