Pakistan Editor Gets Lifetime Award, Loses Husband

Zubeida Mustafa
Zubeida Mustafa at Bloomberg world headquarters. She was in New York to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women's Media Foundation. Photographer: Philip Lewis/Bloomberg

In 1975, when Zubeida Mustafa got a job at Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language newspaper, she was the only woman.

This year, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

In her long career, Mustafa battled censors and extremists to cover politics, social inequality, education and health issues. After a piece on breast cancer, for example, outraged religious conservatives raided the Dawn office for printing “obscene” material.

We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.

Lundborg: What’s the biggest misconception about the U.S. in Pakistan?

Mustafa: Generally there’s a feeling that the U.S. is trying to dominate Pakistan to have its way.

Lundborg: What’s the biggest misconception about Pakistan that we have in the West?

Mustafa: People over here think that the Pakistanis are extremists, that they are militant. They’re conservative, I don’t deny that. There are elements, but that they’re extremists as far as religion goes is really not the case -- I can tell you that.

Lundborg: Osama Bin Laden was living perfectly happily in a nice compound in Abbottabad. What was the Pakistani response to U.S. Navy SEALs going in and taking him out?

Drone Deaths

Mustafa: People were quite shocked when the raid took place. Many people thought that it was good to get rid of him, but at the same time, the drones are becoming a very sensitive issue.

It’s not that people want the terrorists to be there, but they want other ways to be found in which innocent people, even women and children, would not be killed.

Lundborg: What’s been the impact of the Taliban shooting of schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai?

Mustafa: There was an immediate reaction of some fear but that was very short lived. It galvanized the whole nation in support of her and girls’ education. So you know it had just the opposite effect of what the Taliban wanted.

Lundborg: Unesco just published a report saying that three million girls in Pakistan are not being educated at all, the second highest number in the world.

No School

Mustafa: Many of these girls who are not going to school don’t have the opportunity -- there are not enough good schools for girls. We have elections due in a few months and education has become a big issue.

Lundborg: I was shocked to read on your website that 90 percent of Pakistani women experience physical or emotional abuse. That’s almost everybody -- why are men so violent toward women?

Mustafa: Women are trying to get a law against domestic violence but it has been so difficult to get it through because even men who seem to be very modern and progressive have to be persuaded.

If a woman doesn’t have economic independence, she can’t really break away from the domination of a man. We don’t have many women who have economic independence.

Even those who are working, they’re still subject to the control of their husbands or men, whoever they are. The whole society is so patriarchal in nature that there’s a lot to be changed.

Sole Woman

Lundborg: For many years, you were the only woman working at your newspaper. What was that like?

Mustafa: It was pretty lonely I would say. I received a lot of support from my male colleagues, but I always felt that it was important that there should be more women.

I was able to change policies, and when more women came, I tried to help and guide them in every way I could.

Lundborg: Being a woman actually helped you as a journalist?

Mustafa: In Pakistan in many sections the women are segregated so it was easier for me to walk into a house and talk to the female members -- a man couldn’t have done it.

Lundborg: So what was the toughest thing about being a pioneer?

Proving Oneself

Mustafa: I wanted to be taken seriously and after some time I could prove myself. But then I always felt that there were so many men who didn’t have to prove themselves and they were accepted.

Lundborg: How did your husband come to be so supportive of your career ambitions?

Mustafa: At the beginning he felt very proud of me, but then I became too independent for him and he decided to walk out.

Lundborg: What’s the most important thing you’ve taught your two daughters?

Mustafa: I think the mother becomes a role model to the daughter -- they were quite happy about my working and they sort of just followed me.

One daughter is now in France, where she did her Montessori training and works in a school. And the elder one is in Toronto working for Microsoft.

(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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