x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Straight talk on women's rights in Pakistan from Ameena Saiyid

One of the most anticipated talks of the SIBF was by Ameena Saiyid on female empowerment in Pakistan.

Ameena Saiyid is the managing director of the Oxford University Press in Pakistan, and also the founder and director of the Karachi Literature Festival and three children's literature festivals in her home country. This year was her first time at the SIBF, which Saiyid says is an "important" platform to speak freely about the role and status of women in Pakistan.

"Book fairs are critical," she says. "Some have a one-sided view of Pakistan so my aim is to present a different side where women are taking strides and moving forward. The book fair provides an important opportunity for me to internationalise this image, to raise the profile of women."

Saiyid is also one of the founding members of the Women's Action Forum, an organisation that advocates for women's rights. In 2005, she was awarded the OBE from the UK's Queen Elizabeth II, for her efforts in pushing for education and advancing women's roles.

Today, there is an increase in international attention not just on the image of women as partners in economic development but also their affect on the literary world.

This year, the third annual Karachi Literature Festival welcomed more than 10,000 attendees - and numbers double each year, says Saiyid.

"The number of female writers is also growing, one of the most prominent being Kamila Shamsie. I feel there is more freedom in their writing, they are more confident, frank, strong, honest and making important contributions to the literature world."

What is most rewarding about her position, she says, is knowing that she has an affect on young women - yet she remains careful of how she treads.

"I can speak openly and boldly about the subject of female empowerment although yes, there are some extremists who could resent it - but Pakistan is ready to talk about it," she says.

"There are still challenges in areas of education - look at the case of Malala, for example. It shows the [size] of the subject but also the strength of women," says Saiyid, referring to the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban last month. "The most important and effective way for empowerment is through education and leadership."

The SIBF talk helps to raise awareness about the types of discrimination women experience. Saiyid herself suffered many setbacks along her professional journey: some simply refused to offer a job to a woman or to accept a woman boss.

"Having experienced these challenges, my advice to other women is to remain strong and confident. In order to compete with men a woman must recognise her strengths, because at times she may face an onslaught for which she must be ready," says Saiyid.

"Things are changing: we have women occupying important positions - for example, our foreign minister and ambassador to the United States are both women - and we have amazing writers known worldwide."

The next Karachi Literature Festival is in February.