How an honour killing led me to start a feminist platform in Pakistan

I was a few years into a writing gig that most women in Pakistan would kill for. Fashion journalism!

Runways, designer goodies and hobnobbing with beautiful people!

But each time I wrote “couture”, “bespoke”, or “designer”, I wanted to hit my head against a wall.

All the magazines I wrote for wanted women to get thinner and fairer. That women would have their own opinions & choices or visions and dreams to change the world and become global leaders – that wasn’t their concern.  

In times like these my body had always found an intelligent way to remind my heart that I was wandering further and further away from my purpose.

I started suffering from sleepless nights, arriving late to work every day, and dealing with the worst backache of my life.

How many identity crises can you pull off gracefully in a lifetime? How many times are you allowed to rebuild yourself? How many times can you start from Chapter 1?

While I was still contemplating what my purpose was as a privileged 32-year-old single Pakistani woman, another less privileged woman who had fought for her choices all her life was killed. Social media star Qandeel Baloch became the victim at the hands of her own family. Her own brother used his fingers to seep the life through her throat.   

I was devastated.

It seemed I had lost a friend and I just couldn’t understand why.

I never knew Qandeel. I never will know Qandeel.

Maybe it was the timing of the tragedy, maybe it was the fact that Qandeel was like me a single Pakistani woman who believed in the power of  choice to walk the streets, cycle, swim, wear what she wanted…  

But something happened that I became absolutely obsessed.   

My narrative was different from Qandeel. My background was educated. My parents were wealthy. My job stable. My family loving.

I was fortunate to be from the 5% of Pakistani households who allow their girls to attend school, go to university, marry or not marry, travel alone, and work outside their homes.

I did not fight for my privileges, they were handed to me by a mere stroke of luck. I had a father who did not rely on me to save his honour.  

But Qandeel fought for each one of her privileges. She was not as fortunate as I was so she did what she could under whatever circumstances she had. She completely reinvented herself. In the process of reinvention, she became a loud proud feminist.

When I started calling her a feminist, a role model, a brave woman on social media, the statements became a sieve through I could separate my allies.

They were those who were devastated like me, those who said “she had it coming” and those who despised her openly.

It was heartbreaking to see how many educated and privileged people, especially women, shared such callous views about a young Pakistani woman.  

I fought online and on dinner tables.

And I wondered how I could have stopped Qandeel from becoming a headline? How could I have provided her help when she was struggling with online abuse? How could I have helped her when she asked for security?

Not with the superficial content I was busily producing every day!

I went back to work and pitched the idea: “let’s create intelligent and inspiring content for women, let’s talk about more than lipstick and mascara.”

But what I heard from the fashion magazines was:

“We have to generate revenue. The stuff you talk about won’t generate any revenue. We work with brands. We’re here to make money. This is not an NGO”

It was a big fat NO!

I handed in my resignation and asked how many annual leaves I had.

Within a month of my quitting, my idea was selected and incubated at The Nest in Karachi. Having the support of a Google and Samsung funded organistion and run by one of the most visionary women in the software industry.  

I was happy to be given a space to work from, mentorship to develop my idea, and support from one of my biggest role models Jehan Ara.   

That’s when Aurat Raaj was born. Aurat Raaj was based on the first feminist film that was made in Pakistan during the 70s. It was a satire on gender roles reversal. Women had taken up men’s role and men had taken ours.

Today it’s an online platform where Pakistani women contribute their stories, their visions, their dreams. We cover the lives of Pakistani women in conflict areas where there are gang wars and terrorism. We let them exercise freedom of speech and talk about sexual and reproductive choices. We celebrate their wins and achievements. We do workshops where we highlight the plight and struggles of most vulnerable women in Pakistan – transgender women.

We give them self-defence training so can they protect themselves and feel confident.   

Our biggest achievement as an organisation has been the development of our animated series Raaji that follows the inspiring journey of an honour-killing survivor from Thar, Pakistan.

Based on her avatar, we have developed our health, education and employment chatbot that will give young girls judgment-free advice.

I’m proud of what we’ve been able to build but I know its a drop in the ocean. Gender inequality is a personal problem for me. Gender inequality is a country wide problem.

Gender inequality is a global problem. And its a problem that both men and women need to solve together. 

Saba Khalid, Pakistan