Mai says education is now her first mission

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Radha Bheel says she wants to open a school in Thar

KARACHI: Inspirational and successful women speaking on the occasion of the Women of the World (WoW) Festival at the Alliance Francaise on Sunday highlighted that support from families and society can go long ways in encouraging women to excel.

The festival was organised by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER). Nida Mushtaq, an artist working with Fearless Collective Pakistan; Radha Bheel, human rights defender and Dalit and women rights activist; Ayesha Khan of Walled City of Lahore Authority; Mukhtaraan Mai, women rights activist; Nisha Rao of Gender Integration Alliance (GIA) were the main speakers on the occasion.

Mukhtaraan Mai, the woman who survived a horrific gang rape in Muzaffargarh 15 years ago, said that she belonged to a village where there was no concept of education. She said that she faced a lot of violence in her life, but continued her struggle. “My first mission now is education,” she said, adding that she was currently running three schools with about 1,100 students, and from which nine batches of students had already passed matriculation.

Mai also told the gathering that she had opened up a shelter home, a mobile unit and a helpline for women victims of sexual violence. “I have faced a lot of opposition in my work for the welfare of women. A former president was against me and put me behind bars for some time,” she said, adding that she nevertheless continued her struggle without fear.

First student transgender lawyer Nisha Rao said that she faced a lot of discrimination in the society. “Even though my family is educated and they supported me, but they also put a lot of restrictions on me, so I preferred to live with my transgender community,” she said, adding that her decision of leaving her home was because her family had started to ignore her.

She also said that the transgender community was facing a lot of challenges in earning their livelihood since the majority of them were uneducated. She hoped that a law would be passed for the provision of jobs to transgender people in government departments.

She urged the gathering to encourage transgender youth to get education in order that they could live an honourable life. She further recommended that there should be shelter homes for transgender people, and that a special desk should be established in police stations to hear their complaints, as police often refused to receive their applications under the present system.

Nida Mushtaq from Fearless Collective Pakistan said that she belonged to Mardan area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. She said that she used to work for children rights with the United Nations in Colombo, but she was not satisfied with her job. She then got an inspiration from an Indian artist Shilo Shiv Suleman’s work and contacted her. “We started working together and then Shilo came to Pakistan and we started painting together. We made our first mural in Lahore, she said.

“Our first public work was painting streets, in which we also asked people to paint with us,” she said, further narrating that she and Shilo came to Lyari and ended up with a street show in Karachi. She said that they also worked the transgender community. “Now our group comprises seven women from different parts of the world, who have made 18 murals on different topics including refugees of Africa. When there is violence you can replace it with beauty and love,” she remarked.

Dalit Sujag Tahrik Chairperson Radha Bheel said that she belonged to Thar where the majority of the population belonged to the scheduled caste. “In Thar, children die on daily basis and many women die without receiving medical support on their way to hospitals,” she said. “I belong to the area where schools are there but most of them are closed.”

She said that she had recently applied to Sindh Education Foundation for permission to open up a new school in her village, but the village’s influential would not allow it to be opened. She added that her organisation already ran three schools, but the authorities overlooked this fact and rejected her application.

She said that she had worked as a member of the scheduled caste, and that the local zamindars still exploited her family. She said that Dalit Sujag Tahrik had been launched at the national level to reclaim the rights of scheduled caste communities. “Dalit community is facing discrimination in the society,” she said.

“We are not allowed to use common utensils in restaurants in rural areas. In buses, people don’t give us seats due to our Ghaghra dress which identifies us as Dalit,” she said. Speaking at the festival, Ayesha Khan said that she worked for the Walled City Project in Lahore. “I have worked for the preservation of both tangible and intangible heritage,” she said.

She said that her family belonged to the Pashtun Yousufzai clan, which belonged to Afghanistan but moved to Allahabad. Later, they migrated to Pakistan. She said that her father was very supportive of her work. She said that the Walled City project had successfully completed many projects including rangeela rickshaws, repainting of Wazir Khan Mosque, restoration of Faqeer Khana Museum and others.

Over three million visitors have visited the walled city during the last three years, she said, urging those present to visit it also whenever they went to Lahore.