April, 2018

How were the three decades that you spent working for Dawn? Have you adjusted to life without Dawn?
It was a wonderful experience - very satisfying. I felt I could make a small difference in my own little way. It was humbling when I realised the greatness of spirit in the many people I saw who worked for Dawn. It was also a learning experience (I was constantly being taught by the people I interacted with) and, above all, empowering. At the end of the day I felt I had become stronger and more confident. For this experience I owe a lot to the institution I worked for (which includes the proprietors) and my bosses and colleagues. They gave me respect and placed their trust in me, giving me quite a bit of autonomy that allowed me freedom to test my ideas on the ground in many ways. I didn’t have to worry about press controls when I was focusing on the social sectors. The government didn’t give the same importance to the social sectors as it did to politics. Hence it didn’t even note that I was writing so candidly about the common people and their sufferings, since they didn’t count in the government’s scheme of things.

I have been out of Dawn for exactly nine years now. That is a pretty long time to adjust to life without Dawn. Isn’t it? It was not easy at first but within a few months I realised that I had the freedom to choose my activities and the timings when I could do them. When you are freelancing you still have deadlines but they are not as killing as they are when you are working in a daily paper. In my post-retirement period I have written five books - the latest is my memoir called My DAWN Years - Exploring the Social Issues. I have also written 382 columns for Dawn and 50 articles, besides writing for foreign papers. I have also become more active in my activism which involves attending meetings and speaking at conferences and visiting projects of my interest.

How was the experience of working with Mr. Ahmad Ali Khan?
Khan Sahib, as I called him, was my mentor and whatever I learnt about journalism, I learnt from him. It was not just what he talked to me about - one could write a whole book full of his quotable quotes - it was also his own performance as a journalist that taught me a lot. Although he was my boss, senior to me by several decades in experience, he always treated me as a colleague on an equal level. The respect he gave me was very encouraging and gave me confidence.

Among the issues close to your heart are education, women’s empowerment, health and population planning. Don’t you feel there is a lot more that still needs to be done in this regard?
Actually most subjects I wrote about under my by-line came from my heart. I wouldn’t say the same for the editorials I wrote. Editorials are not signed and are the voice of the paper. Hence you have to follow the line you are given. When the country was under censorship there were many subjects that could not be touched. Among the signed articles I wrote I felt strongly about the deteriorating state of education in the country (that included the language in education issue), the inequities in our society (that spawned poverty and related problems of health, shelter and other deprivations) and the subjugation of women.

You have written about a wide variety of subjects. How do you see the future?
A lot still needs to be done. Unfortunately, it has been left to the private sector and the NGOs to provide the services. The government has washed its hands of these sectors without actually announcing it. Its poor performance and indifference vis-à-vis population, education, health and women’s empowerment proves my point.The private sector doesn’t have the capacity to provide services and solve the problems of these sectors. Besides it cannot reach the poorest of the poor. It inherently is designed to make profits. The NGOs could do that but their reach is limited and they are funded by sponsors - many of them foreign - which means they have to abide by their sponsors’ agenda.


How important is the issue of women’s empowerment for you?
A lot. Women hold up half the sky, so goes the Chinese saying. That is true. But their contribution is not recognised. Above all they do not have the power to take their own decisions and this disempowerment weakens them. The tragedy of our women is that it is ingrained in them that they are weak and they cannot do much to change the situation. But I believe they can if they are given a chance.

Among many other areas, your work for poor children has been very uplifting. What inspired you to do this?
Since I am a mother, I always felt for other children who did not enjoy the same privileges. Believe me I never employed a child as a domestic help. I tried to help the children of my domestics by providing them help and even paid for their school fees. I always felt that children suffered for no fault of theirs. I thought it was so unfair.

Your association with Perween Rahman was a special one. Would you like to recall her?
Perween was a friend who I came to know much later in life through her sister who would write for Dawn. I had known Dr Akhter Hameed Khan for a long time and admired his insights, scholarship and wisdom. Perveen had imbibed all that from him and imolemented his philosophy and actually carried it much further than one could have visualised. She was a warm-hearted and cheerful person, very caring and loving. She was very selfless and highly motivated. She kept a low profile in the media but was very effective and a high performer. But she never wanted to be quoted in reference to the work she was doing and the findings of her research. Perhaps she feared for her life for very often she would provide me valuable information but insisted that I should not cite her as the source. It was only after her murder that she became better known in the media and the significance of her work was recognised publicly. Of course the thousands of people - the poor and the appressed - with whom she worked knew her and loved her well.
She very often facilitated my work by providing me contacts and information. She gave me valuable advice.

Do you feel you have been a ‘catalyst for change’ in some ways?
It is difficult for me to answer this question. Yes, I have been dissatisfied with many things in our society. Yes, I have written a lot on these issues and tried to change them. Whether I have been a catalyst is difficult to say. But some changes have been brought about. I wouldn’t like to take credit for them. So many others have been working for them. So how can I say that the change is due to me.

You have won many awards in your journalistic career. Please tell us how important they are for you?
They were all very important because they gave me the satisfaction of having my work recognised. Who wouldn’t want that. This was important in another way. Recognition of my work also meant that it was now dawning on people that human resources are as important as political power, the economy, national security and defence and foreign policy. When I started writing on social issues on the suggestion of my editor Ahmad Ali Khan, most journalists did not really touch them. They were not considered important. I addressed them as I considered them basic to human existence. The awards in a way forced the public to pay attention to these issues which are now being widely written about. Secondly, the awards served as an incentive to me to work harder.

Are you happy the way journalism (both print and TV) is taught and practiced in Pakistan today?
Not at all, as far as practising is concerned. Commercialisation has destroyed the time honoured values we were taught to stand for such as truth, fairness and impartiality. The social media is taken so seriously when there is no editorial intervention. Anyone can write anything and it is taken as the truth. How can it be?
As for teaching, I must say I am very unhappy and even horrified with it. A valiant effort by Nadra Ahmad to set up a state-of-the-art mass communication department in the name of her late husband Feroze Ahmed had been frustrated by vested interests at the Karachi University. All the money was used up in constructing a building. I was on the governing board which included many working journalists.
Mercifully many new teaching institutions have come up. There is the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at the IMMA, a department of media studies in SZABIST and the COBM I believe they are doing good work.

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