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Stories of hope and courage from Pakistan

Jun 18, 2010

Pakistani Woman Publisher, Ameena Saiyid stresses that the India-Pak peace process should not be derailed for any reason; be it terrorism or anything else. She talks about the new-age writers who wish to tell stories other than violence, terror, and the power of media to transform opinions across borders.

New Delhi: A powerful Pakistani business delegation was recently on a visit to India. Their objective was not just to  strengthen trade ties between the two nations but also promote business as a tool to establish peace in the region. Although trade between the two countries has grown from $251 million in 2000-01 to $2.3 billion in 2007-08, there was a significant drop of 19 per cent to $1.81 billion in 2008-09, perhaps the fallout of the Mumbai terror attacks.

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An important member of this high-powered delegation was Ameena Saiyid, OBE, Managing Director, Oxford University Press (OUP), Pakistan.

An illustrious alumna of Templeton College, Oxford University, and Ashridge Business School in the UK, Saiyid is the first Pakistani woman to head a multinational company in her country.

When Arfa Khanum Sherwani caught up with Saiyid in Delhi, the passionate publisher candidly shared her views on the status of Pakistani literature, the impact of militancy on Pakistani women and prospects for Indo-Pak peace.

Arfa Khanum: Has it been difficult to create a body of literature unique to Pakistan, seeing that the country has a shared literary tradition with India?

Ameena: Initially, literature in Pakistan was heavily centred on the negative events related to the Partition but, over a period of time, as the country and its institutions evolved, we started creating our own identity as an independent nation with our own literature, books and readers. Now every year there are at least 60 books published by OUP alone in Pakistan.

Arfa Khanum: During the last decade, Pakistan seems to have spawned a lot of curiosity among writers and readers, but mostly in terms of its politics. Does this frustrate writers wanting to publish work on literature, culture and other aspects of society?

Ameena: Yes it does frustrate and discourage the new breed of writers who want to tell stories other than those of terror, violence and politics. There are still innumerable stories of hope and courage to be told. There is more to Pakistan than just politics.

Arfa Khanum: What kind of books are being written and read in Pakistan today?

Ameena: Well, Pakistan is considered a writer's paradise. But although the English readership has increased over the past few years, considering the low literacy rate in the country, it is still below expectation. The fact remains that Urdu literature has always had a far greater number of takers than any other language in the country.

Arfa Khanum: What is it like to be a woman in a nation like Pakistan? How much has the intensifying militancy impinged on the freedom of women there?

Ameena: It is not easy to be a woman in Pakistan these days. I remember how expediently I used to make work related visits to areas like Peshawar. But now, with fundamentalists almost holding the citadel in these border areas, I cannot advice my fellow women colleagues to do the same. Fortunately, I have not yet faced any such confrontations. Although we cannot deny that these forces have invaded the women's freedom to a great extent, a lot has to do with the stereotyping associated with Pakistani women. For instance, when a group of women from the Pakistani delegation was roaming around in Delhi, people were flabbergasted not to see us in a 'burqa'. But it's not like every woman in Pakistan covers herself from head to toe.

Arfa Khanum: What is the present status of women in Pakistan? Is the government making any efforts towards empowering them?

Ameena: I think the moment a woman steps out of the house and decides to work, she becomes empowered. Contrary to the common perception regarding our women, not just the erudite metropolitan women but even the rural women have always been working in farms and factories to support their families. Women are assiduously fighting for their space in Pakistan and, at the same time, the government has taken some commendable steps to empower them like introducing the sexual harassment bill. However, the Hudood and Blasphemy laws still exist.

Arfa Khanum: As a businesswoman, what are your views on citizen initiatives to establish peace between Pakistan and India? Do you think people are doing more than the governments on both sides?

Ameena: I think so. And it can make a lot of difference; it can force the governments to join hands. I strongly believe that the power of media can transform opinions on both sides. It is deplorable to see such visa conditions and restrictions being imposed on people. How can we stop people from meeting each other? Why doesn't my Karachi phone work in Delhi? Can anyone explain that to me?

Arfa Khanum: What do you foresee as the future of the Indo-Pak peace process?

Ameena: Peace is on its way. The process should not be derailed for any reason; be it terrorism or anything else. Let the people know more about each other and everything will be resolved in no time.

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