Changing Lives in Pakistan

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2015

By Meleah Maynard, Photograph by Matthew Rakola

changing lives

After three years, Fouzia Saeed had had enough. It was the mid-1990s and Saeed (B.S. ’82, M.S. ’84, Ph.D. ’87) was working for the United Nations in Pakistan, her native country. “It was a dream job,” she recalls in the documentary I Was Not Alone: A Pakistani Activist’s Journey for Change, created by the World Movement for Democracy and released last fall. “And then I realized that in addition to all the fun parts of the job there was this streak of frustration, painful experience, and harassment from one of my colleagues. I got really tired. It took me about three years to finally speak out.” But once she did, she gave voice to tens of thousands of women who, over the course of a decade, changed a country.

“When I raised my voice in a very hush-hush manner, quietly, I found out that actually every woman in that office was experiencing the same thing,” she recalls. Together, the 11 women filed a complaint against the colleague for sexual harassment and won their case after a two-year fight. In 2001, once the case ended, Saeed started wondering what she could do so other women did not have to go through what she and her colleagues had suffered. In collaboration with other activists, she founded the Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA), a broad-based movement to end sexual harassment in the workplace.

In 2010, after nearly a decade of activism that mobilized the Pakistani people in support of the movement, the nation’s parliament passed landmark legislation making sexual harassment a criminal offense. “AASHA led to the change in the law, which was a graphic and very clarion warning to all males in a very male chauvinistic society,” Pakistani Senator Aitzaz Ahsan recalls in the film (available on YouTube). Shahida Yasmeen, a Pakistani policewoman who joined AASHA in 2010, 20 years after joining the police, says, “The sort of fear in which I spent those 20 years—if this movement had started earlier, I wouldn’t have spent all this time with that fear,” she says.

Saeed, who won the Humphrey School’s Distinguished Leadership Award in 2008 and the University’s Distinguished International Alumni Award in 1998, is currently the Pakistan Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., where she is documenting and analyzing women’s exertion of power in Pakistan. Though her research goes back to 1940, she is focusing on the last 15 years, honing in on a handful of movements in detail. “I want people to know that Pakistani women are very strong and have taken organized, strategic action,” she says.

Saeed holds three degrees from the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development. She credits the U, particularly her adviser, Professor Emerita Jerry McClelland, with helping to shape her ethics and professional standards. “Jerry was extremely ethical and she taught me well how to be professionally honest,” Saeed recalls. “I will always appreciate that.”

While Saeed may be best known for her activism around women’s issues, as well as her 2001 book, Taboo: The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area, an ethnographic study of prostitution in Pakistan, the scope of her work encompasses a broad range of social issues. During her fellowship in Washington, she has continued to run Mehergarh, a center for learning she founded in Pakistan that focuses on gender, youth, and human rights issues. Its current project is a documentary about violence against women, but the center has also worked on issues related to ending sectarian violence and strengthening democracy. She will return to Pakistan and Mehergarh at the conclusion of her fellowship in September.

Through her work, Saeed aims to make the world aware that Pakistan is changing and behind the frightening headlines, there are positive stories to tell. “The image of a nation really makes an impact on its future,” she says. “The world doesn’t see us struggling against militancy, they see us as militants. They do not realize that Malala [Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014] is a product of the struggle of a country where people are ready to sacrifice their lives against militancy. Change takes time.”


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