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In Pakistan, being Pashtun, a woman, and a journalist is a dangerous combination. Ayesha Hasan is all three
Ayesha Hasan grew up against the backdrop of conflict, in a small village in north-west Pakistan. Now, the journalist and PhD student is devoting her research to highlighting the importance of peace journalism.
Yet, rather than shy away from a fight, or conform to the limitations placed by her culture and ethnicity, she is constantly looking for ways to push the boundaries, to subvert the expectations that have defined her life from the day she was born. After all, the first name given to her by her late grandfather in their small village in north-west Pakistan was customised to mean 'lioness'.
"I come from one of the most conservative tribal villages in Pakistan," Ayesha explains, over tea, a world away in Wollongong. "It is close to the border with Afghanistan and has been targeted over the years by the Taliban, terrorists and military operations in the country.
"When I was born, my grandmother was unhappy to see a girl child. She now tells me that she secretly wished at the time that I would die, because I was a girl. Women in my village still don't have TVs in their homes, they still cover their faces in front of their family and their spouses, they cannot vote or travel alone.
"My paternal grandfather had named me Sher Bano, which means 'the lioness princess' in Urdu. He wanted to name me after him - Sher Khan, like the lion, despite being told that there were no 'lion' names for girls. He called me Sher Bano because he later told me that he could see the fearless rebel in my eyes the day I was born."
Thirty years later, Ayesha continues to fulfil her grandfather's prophecy. She is, in her own words, "fearless".
A PhD student at the University of Wollongong (UOW), Ayesha spends her days balancing study, work, and the joys (and exhaustion) of raising a young son.
Her research is focused on the analysis of media discourse on peace and conflict, a topic that was inspired by a childhood set against the backdrop of war, conflict and her own experiences in the field as a working journalist in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Germany and now, Australia.
She is thousands of miles from that small village on the border with Afghanistan, but Ayesha's Pakistani, and Pashtun roots - and what her life could have looked like - are never far from her heart.
"I would not call my grandfather a feminist, because he was certainly not that, but he was … progressive and wanted the women to be empowered," Ayesha says, searching for the right word.
"He wanted the women in his family to be progressive. He was the first man in the village who broke the tradition that his daughters would be sold in marriage. Some 40 years ago, when my aunts were getting married, he refused to take money from their husbands in exchange - a centuries old, and now almost disappearing, tradition among the Pashtun tribes across Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"My mother, who was married at the age of 15, had always wanted to become a doctor. She still has all her chemistry and biology books, and when you open them, you can see the pages where her tears have washed away the ink. She would look at them and cry, and when my father would come home, she would quietly pack them away and return to being a housewife.
"She didn't want her daughters to go through the same thing. She wanted them to be educated."
"I would not call my grandfather a feminist, because he was certainly not that, but he was … progressive. He wanted the women in his family to be educated."
- Ayesha Hasan
Ayesha's family were well-off by village standards, and when she was older, her family relocated to Lahore, on Pakistan's western border with India, a city that was much more forward-thinking and liberal than her Pashtun home.
"I had the privilege to be born in a family that was financially strong," she explains. "My grandfather had gone from being a shepherd to being the owner of factories, so my mother always tells me that I have this in my genes - to work hard and get where I want to go."
When the family moved to Lahore, Ayesha could not speak a word of English. When she was asked to write an essay in English as a requirement for an entry test at a school, she left the paper blank as she could not even write a sentence. A few weeks of hard work and she returned to sit the test, only to be selected for admission this time. To receive an education in the bustling city, she had to learn the new language.
Today, some 15 years later, Ayesha is fluent in four languages - English, Urdu, Pashtu, Punjabi, with a dash of beginners German, which she is working on. As a Pashtun, Ayesha is part of Pakistan's ethnic minority, a group of people that have been subjected to persecution dating back decades. She raises voice for their rights and hopes to become part of the movement.
"Change doesn't happen in the first generation," she reflects. "I am the first in my family to achieve this level of education, to be studying for a PhD, to have worked and travelled across the world and to have presented my work at international platforms.
"My mother always said that she wanted one of her kids to be a doctor. But I don't like blood! She would try to convince me by saying, "If you can't be a surgeon, can you be a dentist? Or a dermatologist? Can you become any doctor?' I promised her I would get her the black gown of a PhD, because I cannot get the white one, a doctor's coat."
Ayesha was married young, at the age of 19. Yet she yearned for more than being a wife; she yearned for adventure and travel, for a job that would spark her curiosity and her fierce intellect. Armed with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in journalism, and a Master Degree in Communications and Media Studies, both from Pakistan's Kinnaird College, she set out to become a journalist. Within a few years, she began making a name for herself in the media world.
"The society wanted me to prove myself as a good wife, a good daughter in law," she recalls. "But I wanted to do things on my own. It was hard convincing the men in authority around me to let me pursue a career in journalism, but as the saying goes 'nevertheless, she persisted'."
"I began to freelance and started getting job offers. My father-in-law convinced my husband that I should be allowed to work. He said to her, 'she has something in her that motivates her'."
Within a week, Ayesha landed a job at The Express Tribune, the Pakistan edition of the International New York Times. Within a year, she was the only journalist in Pakistan to be selected for the prestigious Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Fellowship of Journalism at Deutche Welle, Germany's public international broadcaster.
"The society wanted me to prove myself as a good wife, a good daughter in law. But I wanted to do things on my own."
- Ayesha Hasan
Returning home from Bonn, in Germany, a few months later, she became a correspondent and was picked to cover the war in Afghanistan. It was an incredible opportunity, but at times, a dangerous experience.
"In 2012, I was working with a group of journalists covering the war and post-war conflict. There were rumours that the group of journalists I was part of had spies from the Pakistani intelligence. This made the entire dynamics of our otherwise harmless work quite dangerous and suspicious, too. I worked in and around Kabul, and in some other parts of Afghanistan.
"When the NATO forces would come in, the other journalists would rush to interview them. But I didn't care about the number of troops in Afghanistan or what was happening in the war, I cared about the people impacted by the war. I was out on the streets, trying to find people who had been devastated by war."
While Ayesha was covering Fawzia Koofi, the first woman presidential candidate in Afghanistan and the survivor of several assassination attempts by the Taliban, the car the two women were travelling in was attacked. They escaped but the memories still haunt Ayesha.
The experience of working as a war correspondent is still raw for Ayesha, some seven years later. She becomes emotional when she recounts the women and children she met in Afghanistan and the conflict-ridden north-western region in Pakistan who had had their lives ravaged by the conflict. Children who had been maimed by weapons and brutality, who had lost body parts to a war outside of their comprehension, much less their control.
Even for a woman who had grown up in a perilous area of Pakistan, it was a confronting experience, one that has left a mark on her soul. She is both incensed and heartbroken over our capacity, as human beings, to inflict unimaginable cruelty on each other. This led her to pursue a PhD in peace journalism. As part of her research, she is developing a model for how journalists and media students should report on war and conflict, with the aim of working towards peace.
She remembers her time in conflict zones.
"There would be men on the streets who had lost their legs, or children who had lost both their eyes, and they would say, 'I can't see! I want to see!'," she says, the frustration creeping into her voice. "In Somalia, in Myanmar, in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and so many other places around the word people are being killed. They are being raped, maimed, burned, and tortured. There is so much hate and the greed for control and power."
"It is all about power and control. They say 'We start wars for peace'. How can you want and have peace through war?"
With the aim of forging a new career for herself, Ayesha was inspired to begin her PhD. Drawing on her skills and her experience in the field, she decided to unravel the concept of conflict journalism and the role of female reporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
She came to UOW to study under the careful eye of her two "wonderful" supervisors, Dr Sukhmani Khorana and Dr Tanja Dreher, who have helped as she juggled the challenges of a new country, a new role, and a new baby. "It is like being in the ocean and finding two pearls," she says of Dr Khorana and Dr Dreher.
Ayesha's PhD is deeply personal, a true reflection of her passion for journalism and her passion for giving voice to those who are unable or unwilling to tell their own stories.
"I come from a village where women and children do not have the privilege of being able to access what they want and what they need," Ayesha says. "I've grown up in a place where drone attacks were the norm. We would be in our house, and the windows would start to shake, and there would be a drone attack, and my family would say, 'it's okay, it's just a drone'. This is not okay. One day, my cousin found a grenade. He was six. That is not okay. Luckily, a family member was able to safely disarm it."
Ayesha is well travelled. Thanks to the career and research-related opportunities she worked hard for. This, she says, changed the way she saw the world.
"It wasn't until I visited first-world countries such as Germany, Australia, and Norway that I realised that this is how people should be living.
"Our people need to know that there is a counter-narrative to war. Peace is less expensive. It requires less effort on behalf of people and the government. In my family, we have lost people to war, we have had family members die. It is so easy for reporters to say '20 people have died in this attack,' but imagine 20 people, and their parents, their kids and their partners, and suddenly from 20 people, it is hundreds and even thousands who are affected by those deaths."
"There would be men on the streets who had lost their legs, or children who had lost both their eyes, and they would say, ‘I can’t see! I want to see!"
- Ayesha Hasan
In addition to completing her thesis, Ayesha is a journalist working for SBS Urdu. Her work has covered women's rights and the political scene in Pakistan, the cultural complexities of living in Australia, as well as food, healthcare, and sport. She loves what she does but notes that, even in Australia, a world away from her Pashtun roots and tribal upbringing, it is a job that attracts deep division and controversy.
"Pakistan is a country that is incredibly dangerous for journalists. A close friend of mine is in exile in Paris because of the things he has written," she says. "At the same time, Pakistan one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. I am a woman, a Pashtun and a journalist. You can do the maths now."
Alongside finishing her PhD and her part-time role at SBS News, Ayesha is working on two books - a fiction and a non-fiction. She is set to start her own blog on brown perspectives around the world and especially in Australia. The journalist/academic is also working on a few research papers and exploring the possibilities of a post-doctorate in media, politics, and genocides.
A recent story for SBS, on Pakistani atheist stand-up comedian Sami Shah, garnered Ayesha a lot of hate. Among the many vitriolic messages she received was one containing rape threats. It had to be taken down from an online platform, but she persists and says, "there's no stopping the power of the pen".
Fearless, in every sense of the word.