Tough Woman in Tough Land

A profile on Nusrat Ara from Pakistan 

Nusrat Ara, an activist from Pakistan's North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), is known for her pioneering work in empowering women for over two decades in a deeply conservative society. Ara took charge of her life, first by educating herself after marriage and then by launching an organization for women's development - Women's Development Organization - in her home-town, Mardan.
Ara, born in 1954, overcame stiff resistance to complete a master's programme and a course in homeopathy after her marriage. Her achievement was remarkable because this was a woman whose relatives did not want her to go to high school because of social taboos.

Fortunately, her father was on her side, and with his support, she was able to finish school and join college. After graduating, she married her cousin and moved to Punjab. Her husband also belongs to a conservative family but since he was an educated and broadminded person, he supported her strong desire to work for the welfare and social development of women. She began this work in Punjab and continued when she later moved back to her home town Mardan.

Looking around her, Ara saw women tolerating domestic violence and other forms of oppression and decided to help. Ara noted that these women were in no position to fight for their rights because they were financially dependent on their men-folk, so she decided to focus on helping them find ways to generate income. With no infrastructure to speak of, but with a great deal of passion and commitment, she launched Women's Development Organization in 1995. Ara organized a team of committed social activists to work with her. In the beginning, they had very few resources but were able to extend their work in the year 2000 with the help of the South Asia Partnership - Pakistan, which provided financial support.

During her two-and-half decades of work with women, Ara has focused on their socio-economic and political empowerment and issues of combating violence against women and child labor. The majority of the women she works with are uneducated and unskilled. She set up skill training and literacy centers for them, along with awareness building and mobilization programs. In the centers, women were taught sewing, knitting, and embroidery, enabling them to earn their own money.

Ara has targeted customs such as honor killings, and 'swarah', which led to women being married off to men to settle disputes, regardless of age differences, etc. She has also worked hard to end the custom of women being married to much older men in return for a "bride price". Ara began a political education programme to motivate women to fight local elections. Although there are 33 per cent seats earmarked for women in some local bodies, women are actively discouraged from participating in the political process. Ara personally contested local elections and won. She is now a member of the district council of her area. The methods that she uses to communicate with women include dialogue, workshops, rallies and corner meetings. Ara works effectively to help families resolve internal problems and conflicts. She communicates in simple language and uses examples from daily life, as well as interactive theatre, which can be very effective. For example, by performing a skit about a family marrying off its underage daughter, she convinced a woman who was planning to get such a bride for her son to change her mind.

When she addresses an issue, Ara addresses both women and men, to bridge the gap between different perspectives. She does not impose her decisions on the community but helps communities find their own solutions. Ara has faced many difficulties in her work, especially criticism by religious leaders and other members of the feudal elite. Clerics accused her of corrupting women. Other men, too, felt threatened by her work, and saw her as a destabilizing influence.

Once, when Ara was conducting a community meeting on human rights in a village called Shamshadabad, a religious leader started to make a speech  against her in the village mosque. He told people that they should throw this "NGO woman" out of the village. Similarly, sometimes local political figures have criticized her and have spread stories that she is a non-Muslim "preaching  Christianity".

Ara has dealt with these challenges with positive behavior, ignoring negative attitudes. Today, her critics understand her vision of development and see how women of the area have improved with her help. They also appreciate her work for the community, which includes the installation of hand pumps for drinking water, the repair of street and drains, the supply of water coolers to a girl's school, etc. Ara has also provided free uniforms to poor students and worked with women prisoners in the district jail in Mardan, providing them with free legal aid.

Today women are more visible in her district and the community has learnt to exercise its rights without losing its traditional moorings. In 1993, when she opened a school in village Toru, it was hard for her to find female staff, because no woman was willing to work in the school. But now, a number of educated  women are doing so. With her help, many women have started their own businesses like selling cloth, making and selling decoration pieces and other handicrafts, selling dairy and poultry products, etc. Some women have contested local elections.

Although the region still remains extremely conservative, there is greater tolerance for Ara's work. It is not easy to change customs, practices and myths existing in a society for centuries. So Ara believes that the struggle for women's  rights is a long one. But she is optimistic and hopes that small changes can lead to big ones. 


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