Last month I went to a nearby flower shop to buy some seasonal plants and flowers because Mother’s Day was approaching. It was to be followed by Women’s Day and I was missing my Ammi.  I was thinking about what to put in those flowers that would really make them stand out; I wanted to pair them with some style, so I glanced through some categories like romance, vibrant, modern, classic, and unique etc. In the meantime, I noticed a quote by Christine Dior displayed on the window; “After women, flowers are the most divine creations”. This took me a few years back to a journey of this divine creation: of becoming a woman.

My father had always been keen that his children should be highly educated and my mother encouraged and supported us in every sense of the word. She herself grew up in a village with little literacy but she always laid great emphasis on a girl’s education and economic independence. It was owing to this encouragement for higher studies that I was able to make it to this level today and where I’m able to take my relatively independent place in the world. It is a source of accomplishment for her as she sees her dreams coming true in me.

During my post-graduate studies, I began to realize like all other women, how being a woman is challenging, exciting and at the same time frustrating. There were so many barriers to become a confident woman. Since we have long been silenced and reduced to decorative objects, I wanted to engage in some sort of activism in order to change the degenerated and oppressive social structures. I didn’t want to forget my strength and be among many who are living without any significant voice. I continued my struggle and it took me years to become what I am today. Hence, the journey started when during our MS English coursework at International Islamic University I, with my friends, submitted an application to the university to establish a study circle which sooner developed itself into a dynamic Critical Thinking Forum aka CTF. The idea was a brainchild of our teacher and the purpose was to read and engage young women researchers in interdisciplinary academic critical discussions outside the course outline, with other female students from other departments, and learn various perspectives about the topic under discussion. Our sessions comprised of serious discussions on books like Archaeology of Knowledge, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, Prison Notebooks, Brown Skin White Mask, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Culture and Imperialism and The Conclusive Argument from God etc. to cheerful discussions on various articles related to Research Militancy, Subaltern Studies’, Arab Spring, Culture of Neoliberalism, Ecological issues and Globalization etc. With the passage of time we were able to invite other young researchers and dedicated faculty members at the early stage of their careers for discussions. We met with astronomers to literary writers, critics to filmmakers, ambassadors to copyright and patent law advisors, national and international speakers on various occasions. We had found an outlet for expression and vigorous learning while we engaged with people in conferences, seminars, roundtables, Skype sessions, book reading sessions organized on our own. We were enjoying our evolution as women who could engage in healthy debates, think differently and become agents of change.

Since then the forum has developed into a vibrant female oriented research forum of Pakistan with international linkages now. We all belong to various parts of Pakistan and while learning to manage and organize life, home, family, work, friends and studies we make sure we are well-prepared for difficult times and challenges. We all hope to carry our learning to our future generations. We enter the discussions with an open mind, read assigned material, rocking heels, flip-flops, hoodies, dupattas and hijabs and participate in the discussions to negotiate differences and build alliances for possible solutions to problems.

It was this dedication and commitment to foster critical thinking in young female research students that we were able to launch a project on “Consciousness Raising of Pakistani Women on Contemporary Academic and Social Issues (2015 – 2017)” which aimed to link the social issues in the Pakistani society with academic discourse; a connection that seems to be missing in the developing countries. In this project the awareness about various issues in our culture is not done through violent activism but through academic activities. Through this project young CTF members are being trained to conduct roundtables in other universities which have agreed to come on board. The broader themes of the project include indigenous roots of women issues, social harmony and tolerance, interdisciplinarity and critical social sciences, ecological issues and environmental concerns. We think it is important to reach female students at early stages of their academic careers because if we are not given awareness about our consciousness raising, certain forms of biases we carry will remain part of our minds during studies and will travel into the workplace and homes. In many of these consciousness raising activities, young women share their personal narratives regarding abuse and harassment and voice their concerns and problems regarding women issues. The topics of discussion are diverse as Pedagogical Models and Women’s Education, Constitution and Legislation in Pakistan to Safeguard Women’s Rights, Women’s Right to Health: Problems and Solutions, Pakistani Women’s Consciousness Raising: Role of Media and Literature and so on.

We also observed that young students at undergraduate level also feel excited to engage in such activities which generate a meaningful dialogue and a healthy discussion on various aspects of women’s lives in Pakistan. So we established a sub unit of CTF called English Reading Forum (ERF) in our department where girls read fictional works in relation to local and global social issues.

We must realize now that inculcation of critical thinking in humans can ensure betterment of the society. The detachment of academia from society and lack of criticality are responsible for the abuses of many of the rights in our country.  Young minds of CTF are learning that human rights and women rights are recognized by our own religion so they should not be tabooed by regarding them a part of any western agenda. We hope that our society learns that young women in academia should be engaged in such scholarly activities to get academic exposure of contemporary debates and develop a spirit of meaningful interaction, communication and peaceful, mutual co-existence. We need to inculcate a more academic, professional and focused attitude in women so that they become willing to work not just for monetary gains but to learn how to be strong individuals and responsible citizens. We have realized the need of an academic activism that is more local, related to the issues faced by women in our society and is rooted in the true spirit of our religion. These young women emphasize the indigenizing of the challenges faced by women in our society and look for their solutions at the same time. In their discussion they stress on the need for finding the role models in our own history and creating a culture of internal networking and mentoring. They emphasize the importance of proper facilities and training for professional women in academia and suggest the inclusion of men in the process while becoming the agents of change themselves. They also emphasize the need to have the presence of women in society through women’s forums where women have the ability to negotiate and debate. These women want to be more resilient and consistent professionals without being patronized. It has been observed that now more women want a focus on women’s rights in the Pakistani society. They want to know the legal and constitutional rights of the women as well as recent legislations to safeguard women’s rights that reflect an increased awareness of this issue in Pakistan.

It’s high time we realized the various factors responsible for the deprivation of women’s rights in Pakistan which include illiteracy, confused social structures, and distorted interpretation of religion. I believe that the formation of platforms like Critical Thinking Forum (CTF) can be a positive step towards a better future for Pakistan as these early career women who are also research students with too much heart and strength are passionate and courageous. They make informed decisions about the work they do, words they write, places they go to and choices they make. It seems that the obstacles in their lives have made them strong and by incorporating critical thinking in their life, they are settling for kind, meaningful and respectful choices in their life.

Like all young people I wanted to change everything fast but I have been taught that we have to be patient and not give up because change occurs gradually, not all at once. It is an evolution not a revolution. One generation has to pay the price to strengthen the next. I now understand my mother and other women better as now I have evolved through times. The problems that my mother had may not be the similar to mine but her support to solve mine is definitely going to reduce the chance of the same problems arising for my next generation.

Thanks to all those women and men who continue to cast a gift of critical thinking into young minds and play their parts in educating and strengthening a woman. It is now on the Pakistani woman and she should be wise enough to make the right choices in her life and decide whether to enjoy the luxury of subordination or to pay the price of empowerment and face the challenge. 

I looked at a vase filled with red tulips still in the bulb and hoped with a smile that they would bloom beautiful just like a woman who becomes beautiful when she has a clear idea of who she is, where she stands, what’s important to her and how she wants to be treated.