Between Oscar night and March 8 this year women from Pakistan stamped their influence on the US citadels of entertainment and power. Social activist Shad Begum from Lower Dir district took her International Women of Courage Award exactly 11 days after Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy accepted an Academy Award for her documentary on acid attack victims.
Shad’s feat – celebrated with less fanfare than Sharmeen’s Oscar though it was held in the US capital – was just as significant, marking the second high-profile award of late for a woman from Malakand. The region may be grappling with the trauma of years of war, but female leaders are carving out new territory for the next generation.
First was the outspoken teenager from Swat, Malala Yousafzai, who received a peace award from Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. And then came Shad Begum’s award, handed to her by US First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a ceremony in Washington.
Shad Begum hails from Talash town about 20 kilometres south of Lower Dir’s district headquarters, Timergarah. Interestingly, Shad Begum’s launch of NGO Anjuman Behbod-e-Khawateen Talash (ABKT) in 1994 coincided with Sufi Muhammad, leader of Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi, leading an uprising for the enforcement of Sharia laws in the region.
The trajectories of both movements make an interesting study, as the former brought positive global recognition for this conservative region, while the other ended in bloodshed and devastation.
Born in 1978, Shad Begum started her work at an early age after matriculation. She got a master’s degree in Urdu from the University of Malakand and is currently doing an MBA at the University of Peshawar.
Jan Mohammad, Shad Begum’s husband, says his wife is part of a lineage of service. “There was a tradition of social work in our family, and Shad Begum carried on that tradition,” he told The Express Tribune. Jan said that his father-in-law has been doing social work for the local community since 1971.
“In 1992, he founded Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (IKK) for welfare and development in Talash; however, he also wanted to do something for women in the area and this was not possible through an all-male organisation,” Jan said.
Thus ABKT was set up. Initially, it worked on health, education and micro-finance facilities for women. Over the years it extended its operations to reconstruction, relief and rehabilitation.
The organisation currently operates in about 12 districts in the province, but, according to Jan, Upper and Lower Dir, Shangla and Swat constitute its core areas.
Jan said that ABKT’s basic aim was to work on women and family issues, as they could not be addressed through other organisations given the area’s cultural sensitivities. In 2008, the organisation came to Peshawar due to the insurgency in Malakand, and its name was also changed to Association for Behaviour & Knowledge Transformation.
Shad Begum had the full support of her family throughout this period. “Her father motivated her, brothers supported her and I also support her work, and she never had problems with her family,” Jan said.
However, Jan acknowledged that there had been some issues. This perhaps led to his wife contesting the district councillor’s election for the area on a Jamaat-e-Islami seat. “It means her work was acceptable to religious elements of the area,” Jan said.
Fayyaz Mohammad, programme manager at ABKT, did admit that the organisation faced difficulties in the area from time to time.
Not surprisingly, few politicians have ever heard of Shad. A PPP politician from Malakand claimed that he knew Shad Bibi. “She was a councilor in the region. Her father was a member of Jamaat-e-Islami,” Mahmud Zeb, provincial minister for Technical Education, told The Express Tribune. “She hasn’t done anything for the region.”
Zeb, however, called upon women to follow in Shad Bibi’s footsteps while “observing the Islamic dress code”.
About the award, Jan said the family were delighted, but would have been happier if she had been recognised in her own country.
Shad Mohammad, her brother, was of the view that the honour was an acknowledgment for her work and role among the people of Malakand. He added that the work his sister embarked upon was previously unheard of in the area, as most women become teachers.
Shad Begum’s colleagues are equally proud, it seems. “She is a brave, talented and visionary woman who has done a lot for the welfare of women in the area,” said Aurganzeb Khan, an employee at ABKT.
An earlier version of this article misspelt Sharmeen as Sharmeed. Correction has been made.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 13th, 2012.