Lahore-Syra Rashid Vahidy is the founder of the Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women which she set up to honour her mother who was a strong advocate of women’s emancipation in the early days of Pakistan.

With a previous career in journalism and advertising in Pakistan, Syra is now based in the UK with a business interest in a college of music in London. In conversation with The Nation she talk about her career and success. Following are the excerpts.

How was Zeenat Haroon as a mother? And In which means your mother had an influence on you?

My mother, Zeenat, may not have been an extraordinary woman, but she lived through an extraordinary time. It was a time when young women rallied to the cause of the Pakistan Movement following in the footsteps of trailblazers like Begum Raana Liaquat Ali Khan, Miss Fatima Jinnah, Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz and Zeenat’s own mother, Lady Haroon who were creating a powerful voice and space for women in public life.

Please tell us why an essay writing competition?

After my mother passed away in 2017, I was looking for a way to honour her memory through a charitable cause. People often ask me, why I chose to establish a writing competition in her name since she herself was not a writer. While it is true that my mother was not educated beyond “Senior Cambridge” (equivalent to today’s GCSE), her passion and enthusiasm for reading and learning for its own sake was unparalleled. Therefore, I know it would have pleased her enormously to have a writing prize founded in her name.

What were your expectations in terms of the response to your  call for submissions?

In my knowledge, there is no large cash prize for a writing competition in Pakistan. So when I set out on this mission, I did not know whether we would receive 50, 100 or even 200 submissions. But to our surprise 500 submissions were received and we were overwhelmed and touched by the unanticipated response.

What kind of writing was submitted and what were the themes?

Our call submissions this year was based around the theme ‘Women & Pakistan’, but we did not want to restrict the format to fiction or non-fiction, so we invitedentrants to submit narrative or polemical essays, memoirs or short stories. Although the quality of the writing was variable, the themes were (sometimes depressingly) similar: Domestic violence, rape, child sexual abuse, forced marriages, lack of independence, restriction of individual freedoms including limiting the right to education. But there were also some inspiring stories of women breaking the shackles that bind them and breathing freely and independently and some humorous takes on quintessentially female problems faced by women in Pakistan like body hair or dark complexions or the “rishta parade”.

How were the long listed and short listed entries decided? And how will the winner be chosen?

I have had the good fortune all along to call upon literary friends to help read the submitted entries and we managed to cut 500 entries down to 24 for consideration by our panel of judges. Our judges then submitted lists of their favourites from which we drew up a shortlist. The judges will then confer and unanimously decide a winner.

What sort of writing will the prize be reviewing or looking out for?

Our judges are always looking for an original voice, not necessarily an original theme or episode but even an ordinary subject examined from an extraordinary angle or aspect. And as always we are looking for a facility with words and imaginative expressiveness that is truly excellent.

When will be the winner of this competition announced? And what advice have you to offer aspiring writers?

We are planning on announcing the winner in mid-January. And my advice to the aspiring writers would be: Read, read and read more. Do your research. And pay attention to what is happening, not just around you but in realms that may have escaped your focus. Listen carefully to all conversations, even those that don’t interest you. Everything is fodder for a story or an idea. And get a good editor. A literary friend or teacher who will read your work and offer helpful advice on how to improve it.

What’s your future plans to carry the legacy of your mother?

The prize is to be an annual event and we will alternate between fiction and non-fiction formats. Next year will be non-fiction.