January issue 2017
A Road Less Travelled
Zeenia Shaukat’s petite frame and her soft-spokenness belie her steely will to take up causes she believes in. It was while studying Economics at the Karachi University that she felt a strong desire to link up with a sector where she could make a meaningful contribution.
Initially she stepped into the world of journalism. “When I started work in 2000, the media was viewed as a big, new and important industry,” says Shaukat. She monthly magazine gave Shaukat the opportunity to cover women’s issues as well as hone her writing skills. “Zuhra Karim, our editor, was a very big influence on all of us and the experience helped me develop my understanding of issues, as well as organisational structures.
“Later, I joined The News on Sunday, where I worked for three years and my focus, once again, was social issues. I was attached to Instep, which covered a wide range of subjects, including lifestyle, and entertainment, but we used to focus on them as issues – rather than as ‘infotainment.’”
Subsequently, Shaukat acquired a degree in International Communications from the Leeds University, UK. “It was extremely valuable since Pakistani universities don’t teach critical thinking or how to engage with the system. In Leeds, I learnt to question things and delve deeper.”
However, Shaukat’s perception of the media changed after she acquired her degree. “I became increasingly critical about how the media works – more so its power structures, especially in the context of Pakistan. Sooner or later, people in journalism, like myself, realise there is only so much they can do. I then thought of working on issues and causes through other avenues. Politics, for instance?”
On her return from Leeds in 2007, Shaukat joined Senator Sherry Rehman as her research and communication support. Over the next three stormy years, in which Rehman’s position within her political party kept changing from one year to the next, Shaukat was the only person in her employ. Rehman was the Central Information Secretary and a leading member of the PPP during Shaukat’s first year and her office was responsible for, among other things, drafting statements, media responses and policy statements. “I worked on PPP’s 2008 manifesto – that was my baby,” Shaukat says with considerable pride. Having viewed the world of politics from the inside, Shaukat says, “It’s a very difficult terrain, especially for women. My experience of working closely with a leading parliamentary figure taught me that even small successes are an outcome of long struggles.”
In 2008, when Rehman became Information Minister, Shaukat was appointed her Policy Manager in the Ministry of Information which entailed issuing policy statements on various issues. Shaukat remembers it as being a particularly bad year politically, as the PPP was itself in a state of turmoil. A year later, Rehman had to eventually step down. Shaukat remained with Rehman for another year, and eventually moved back to Karachi when Rehman did.
“I would have worked only with Sherry and nobody else,” Shaukat is categorical. “She has a very rich background and an understanding of issues compared to other officials and is deeply committed to her causes and rights. I have seen how she would negotiate for each of these within her party. There would always be people contesting it and it wouldn’t go through unquestioned. I think there is very little awareness about these few political actors who have risen above their party line and stood up for their own beliefs. It is important they be appreciated for what they go through; it’s a tough call.”
After three years, Shaukat opted to work as a research associate for the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER). Within a year, she became programme manager. “PILER would come up with brilliant ideas. Because they are involved in issues of workers’ rights; working with them, I gained the exposure and insights into social processes that helped me comprehend the complexities of issues,” she says. “Changes had to come at the structural level.” After five very productive years with PILER, to which she is still attached as a consultant, Shaukat decided to explore new horizons yet again.
She is now working with Justice (retd.) Majida Razvi, head of the Sindh Human Rights Commission, that pursues cases of human rights violations. “The Commission has the mandate to make recommendations but does not have the authority to punish. However, we can make very strong recommendations to the chief minister.” The commission also reviews the existing laws and government policies in Sindh from the human rights perspective – and that is where Shaukat comes in, as part of their research set-up, which she now leads, reviewing laws relating to women to see how these can be strengthened.
Recently, she has also started teaching a Gender and Development course at NED University. Meanwhile, Shaukat continues to contribute articles to various newspapers. “I want to continue to grow, expand, evolve and build my skills and expertise so that there is a solid quality to every single thing I do. This is a life-long process.”
The writer is a documentary filmmaker and activist. She is working with the Newsline as editorial assistant.