On International Women’s Day, Shaheen Ali, Professor of Law at the University of Warwick, shares her thoughts on the role that education plays in achieving the UN’s goal of achieving gender equality by 2030.
Professor Shaheen Ali is a trailblazer. She obtained the highest marks by a law graduate at Peshawar University, she became the first female law professor in Pakistan and the first Pakistani female law professor in a UK university, among many other achievements. She is among the top 100 most influential Pakistani women in the world. This is no mean feat for a little girl born in rural Pakistan.
Professor Ali explains: “I was born in the beautiful Swat Valley of north-western Pakistan and my life has been full of blessings, contradictions, miracles, challenges and fulfilment. I was engaged to a paternal cousin at the age of five, sent hundreds of miles away from home to a Catholic Convent Boarding School, married halfway through my education and had two babies by age 21. The list goes on. But with the unstinting support of my family, I worked so hard to do my best and completed my Law degree, engaging with the magic and pleasure of education through reading, writing, debating, joining sports, and so much more.
“Many ‘firsts’ followed. I obtained the highest marks by a law graduate at Peshawar University. I received Presidential Awards for obtaining top marks in my BA and LLB degrees. I became the first female law professor in Pakistan and first Pakistani female law professor in a UK university. I was the first female Cabinet Minister in the government of the province of my birth, the first Chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan, and I’m honoured to have been included in the top 100 influential Pakistani women in the world.
“Every success and honour is a humbling moment, bringing home the realization that I am being blessed while there are numerous others more deserving. The adage 'knowledge is power' comes to mind and deepens my conviction that girls' education is one of the most effective tools for empowering women by opening up numerous spaces for them and their families.”
Woman to woman
But Professor Ali was not the only trailblazer in her family. Her late mother, begum Marouf Pirdad Khan, lovingly know as Apa, was once the only female university graduate in the valley of Swat – which was at the time a princely state in the north west of Pakistan. She graduated from Punjab University in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts – a fact the census officer apparently had to double-check with her father-in-law. She played a central role in setting up schools in Swat which broke the mould of the centuries-old societal custom of not allowing girls to leave the home to attend school. Thousands of girls benefitted from her initiatives and dedication to girls’ education.
Professor Ali continues: “I know from experience that educating just one woman can result in a huge transformation for entire generations. This is exemplified in the story of my life, and that of my late mother and her struggles for the women of the Swat valley. When I was named as one of the top 100 influential Pakistani women, it brought home this realization with a deeper intensity than ever. I decided that I must act to do something and support other Pakistani women, so that they may have similar opportunities.
“For me, coming abroad for a higher degree in Law was a major turning point in my life and my career progressed in leaps and bounds. I wanted very much for other women to be able to experience the same sense of empowerment and confidence that I developed when I graduated from a UK university so many years ago.”
Professor Ali set up The Women in Pakistan Scholarship three years ago, with the aim of helping marginalised women to achieve their potential by crossing cultural boundaries and expanding their horizons. The scholarship is a concrete effort to facilitate and support one Pakistani woman every year to attend the University of Warwick to read for one of the five LLM degrees offered by Warwick Law School.
“This scholarship is a way of saying ‘thank you’ for all the blessings I have received,” explains Professor Ali. “It aims to recognise and advance women. It is a form of activism, working for girls’ and women’s education and empowerment, because so many, like myself, can and will go ahead to become catalysts for positive change in their respective societies.”
The current recipient of the award is 26-year old Arshia Qazi, from Lahore in Pakistan. Being the second last in line of seven children, Arshia grew up in an atmosphere that was competitive. She says: “We definitely spurred each other on. My brothers and sisters and I each sought to match, if not surpass our predecessor sibling in terms of achievements and accolades, and in an environment where my father was the sole bread winner for the family, my siblings and I always strived, or at least attempted to relieve him of some of the financial constraints that are required to pay for a quality education.”
Arshia received the Dean’s Scholarship for her high academic performance throughout her A-Levels and undergraduate LLB degree, which she gained from the University of London. She is now studying for her Masters at Warwick supported by The Women of Pakistan Scholarship.
She explains: “Being selected for Women of Pakistan Scholarship at Warwick was not only a personal achievement, but recognition for my gender, as even to date, Pakistani women face countless hurdles when it comes to reaching higher education. Religious and cultural factors certainly contribute to the difficulties, but financial constraints are at the top of the list of barriers to studying.”
Arshia has chosen to focus on International Commercial Law, and feels it is upon her now to not only perform well in the program, but also to contribute towards the elimination of the deficit of women pursuing education in Pakistan. She explains: “I want other girls and women like me to experience this wonderful journey which I have been lucky to embark upon.”
This scholarship is of enormous personal importance to Professor Ali. She continues: “Presently, the Women of Pakistan Scholarship is funded by royalties from my publications - all proceeds from my latest monograph, Modern Challenges to Islamic Law (CUP, 2016) have been ploughed back into this fund. There is also the generous support of Warwick Law School, my family and friends. I have cooked many fundraising meals for colleagues at Warwick and will continue to do so.
“Education can be life-changing – not only for the individual, but for entire communities. It’s so important to me that other women benefit from the opportunities education can provide.”
7 March 2018
Professor Shaheen Ali
Professor of Law
University of Warwick
For more information about the Women of Pakistan Scholarship, please contact Professor Shaheen Sardar Ali.
If you would like to donate to the scholarship fund, please visit the fundraising pages.
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