Pakistan has no dearth of strong female role models yet most of them remain unknown or underrated. These women can teach us a lot about perseverance, spirit and entrepreneurship and each one is an inspiration in her own right and field. Below is a list of some of those unrecognized Pakistani-bred or born women that dared to go above and beyond to make their mark in the world.
Namira is the first Pakistani astronaut, and the only Pakistani to have been chosen by the Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial space liner. She is the first Pakistani and the first Asian to skydive over Mount Everest. She was also the first Pakistani to reach the North and South Poles, staying true to the explorer-spirit within her. Waving the Pakistani flag at the North Pole, she claimed: “I convey a universal message of peace and to assert to the global community that Pakistani nation is peace loving and tolerant nation.”
Namira founded the Pakistani branch of AISEC, an international student organization. She is also an acclaimed artist and in 2002, she held a solo exhibit “Peace Making with Nation Souls”, the official supporting event to the UN General Assembly Special Session for Children. She exhibited solo at UNESCO’s Executive Board under the theme Peace & Soul and also in Dubai under the Patronage of the Chairman Emirates Airline & Group. She was awarded Tamgha-e-Imtiaz for her efforts in promoting peace and a positive image of Pakistan.
Saba is the perfect picture of a brilliant entrepreneur with a good cause. After receiving her second degree from MIT, she left her lucrative corporate job in the US as an engineer and instead decided to move back to Pakistan to help those with fewer opportunities than her. And thus, in 2011, Popinjay was born as a way to empower the underprivileged women of Pakistan with skills and jobs. Today, it is a high-end handbags and fashion label. Popinjay had “the grand vision of providing equal opportunity to everyone on the planet” and remains true to the cause.
Popinjay employs 150 women in Hafizabad at present, and these women come together every morning to hone their skills and embroider the great designs the label is famous for while earning three times the market rate. Besides the earnings, the artisans now boast self-sufficiency, confidence and the ability to make their own decisions despite residing in a rural patriarchal setting. If there ever was an entrepreneur serving as an inspiration, it is Saba.
The 26-year-old, belonging to Bahawalpur, is Pakistan’s first war-ready fighter pilot. One of only 19 women who have achieved the feat of becoming a pilot in the Pakistan Air Force in the last decade and the first of 6 female fighter pilots qualified for combat, Ayesha is a force to be reckoned with.
To Ayesha, her widowed mother is the “ultimate symbol of strength.” But when the zealous then-teenager wanted to join the air force seven years ago, there was opposition. “In our society most girls don’t even think about doing such things as flying an aircraft,” lamented Ayesha. However, Ayesha’s persistence and dedication paid off.
Despite going into perhaps one of the most male-dominated field in Pakistan, Ayesha claims no disadvantage because of her gender. According to her, she doesn’t feel any different than her male colleagues as they do “the same precision bombing.” As for Ayesha herself, she has made history and blazed the way for more Pakistani women to follow in her footsteps and venture into the unexpected and unknown.
Naila Alam and Yasmeen Durrani
The two Pakistani sisters established Express Care, a non-profit organization, in the USA in 2003 as a way to uplift individuals and provide food, medication, clothes, jobs and anything and everything to those who need it most. The organization believes in more than hand-outs, however. The effort also includes the teaching of skills and provision of training to make impoverished individuals more employable. More than a hundred students have received graduation certificates from the Department of Medical Assistance Services and are now employed.
The service is based in Virginia, where the two sisters reside. The dynamic duo has won awards and accolades from the National Association of Muslim Women and the Council of American Islamic Relations, as well as the Herndon Rotary Club. As well as the local acclaim, they also received the Honor of Hope Award in 2008 under the White House’s Faith and Community Based Initiative (FCBI) at the White House National Conference of Faith and Community Based Initiative. In 2007, Express Care received the Champion of Compassion Award from the White House Faith and Community Based Initiative (FCBI) through the Northern Virginia Workforce Investment Board as well. Besides helping the community they live in, the sisters have made Pakistan proud.
Hearing news of a woman who killed her own children because she couldn’t afford to feed them, Parveen set out to help her countrymen so no one would go hungry on her watch again. And thus Khana Ghar was established in 2002 as a small dabba providing hot meals to anyone in need at the mindboggling price of only three rupees (3 cents). The meagre amount of money was just a means to spare the pride of those in need, and help them out in a dignified manner.
The local resident of Surjani Town financed the entire project on her own before support emerged in the form of relatives and donors who witnessed and were motivated by her dedication and goodwill. In these times of soaring rates, Parveen always has a hot roti and curry waiting for anyone who wants to eat and can’t afford it.
The 52-year-old humble philanthropist doesn’t believe she has done anything extraordinary despite feeding hundreds at her Khuda Ki Basti outlet in Karachi and motivating many to do the same. She has received Timberland Pakistan’s Green Awards for her services.
Maria Toorpakay Wazir
Belonging to the highly tribal and conservation region of South Waziristan, Maria trained and competed as a boy for years in Peshawar and even won a junior weightlifting tournament under the male name “Chingaiz Khan”. At the age of 16, however, she was required to show her birth certificate to register for a Squash event, and the truth came out. She was bullied and ostracized relentlessly. And when clerics denounced her family for their “un-islamic” acts, her home had to be provided tight security by the Pakistani National Squash Federation.
Today, she is Pakistan’s best Squash player and currently ranked 54th in the world and remains one of the only three Pakistani women in the top 200. In 2007, she was given the Salaam Pakistan Award by the President of Pakistan and she continues to use her airtime to speak out against extremism.