the friday times: Alternative perspectives

Syed Hussain explains how Sehba Sarwar is representing progressive Pakistan in the United States

February 20, 2009

"The issues that women face are not limited to Pakistan, but rather, are worldwide. Both here and in the US – and in all the spaces in between – women are fighting for equal representation in existing power structures and are juggling responsibilities..."

I met writer and multidisciplinary artist Sehba Sarwar during her recent visit to Lahore when she gave an informal talk and reading at the Government College University. After a brief introduction, Sehba told me that she was first trained as a journalist with The Star in Karachi after completing her A Levels back in the eighties, and again, after completing her undergraduate in the US. While working at The Star, she wrote feature stories and was first trained by Zohra Yusof and then later worked with Sanyeeya Hussain and Imran Aslam.

When asked why she abandoned journalism and instead turned to fiction, non-fiction and poetry, she said. “I don’t like journalism in the States and I prefer media in Pakistan. For example, you can see the difference in the reporting on Palestine here (Pakistan) and there (US). In the US, the single-mindedness and corporate agenda of media is very disheartening. It really troubles me. Some of that is beginning to seep in Pakistan, but there, one is very conscious of how sensationalism drives news. Ultimately, though, I’ve always loved storytelling. And that’s why I chose to let go of journalism and instead turned to other forms of writing, where I can have more creative license.”

Sehba was born and raised in a Karachi home surrounded by activism. Over the last decade, she has contributed writings for Pakistani, US and Indian newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Her writings explore women’s issues and straddle two continents, moving between South Asia and the US. Her first novel Black Wings, was published in 2004. Her short story “Soot” was included in the 2008 anthology of Pakistani women writers, And The World Changed (Feminist Press, New York), and her story “A Sandstone Past” appeared in another anthology of Pakistani women writers, Neither Night Nor Day (Harper Collins, India). In recent years, her essays have appeared in publications including The News of Sunday, The New York Times’ Sunday Magazine, and Chowrangi. Her poetry has also been published in Pakistan, Korea and the US. She often leads writing workshops for young and adult women, with the primary goal of helping them find their own voices. She is currently based in Houston, USA, where she serves as founding director of Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), and is an active voice at KPFT Pacifica Radio and at anti-war rallies. Currently, Sehba is working on a variety of projects including her second novel, a collection of essays, and a video installation project that aims to present an alternative image of events unfolding in Pakistan.

Proving herself a committed activist, she has not forgotten the damage caused to Pakistan under the dark period of General Zia ul Haq. Perhaps this was the mindset, she felt, when in 1999 Nawaz Sharif was trying to pass Shariah Law. “I was sad and angry, and I ended up writing a poem about it. That poem gave birth to my organisation – Voices Breaking Boundaries ( – in 2000,” she said. “I think we writers need to be honest about our experiences and the world around us. Sometimes my work is more personal; other times, it’s more about the world around us.”

She feels that activism runs in her family. Her father, Dr. Sarwar, was deeply involved in the student movement of the fifties, and her sister, Beena Sarwar, is a known journalist and activist. Her mother, Zakia Sarwar, is a passionate educator, and has passed on to her the commitment to fight for women’s rights. “In our family, there was no pressure to marry, who to marry, and we were free to make own professional and personal choices,” she recalled, talking about how welcoming her family was when she married a Mexican-American educator.

“If we strip power away from men who think they are smarter or stronger than women, the situation will improve everywhere in the world,” she said laughingly. “The issues that women face are not limited to Pakistan, but rather, are worldwide. Both here and in the US – and in all the spaces in between – women are fighting for equal representation in existing power structures and are juggling responsibilities of the home, motherhood, and financial pressures, along with demands and biases in their professional worlds. It’s the same story everywhere one looks.”

Through her organisation, Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), which aims to “cross borders, sustain dialogue, and incite social change through art,” Sehba has produced and performed in numerous events in Houston and other cities. She has also led VBB writing workshops for adults and youth. In VBB’s early days, Bapsi Sidhwa (also based in Houston), served on the organization’s Board and performed at annual events such as Words for Peace. Because the organization operates with a grassroots structure on a low budget—and doesn’t accept corporate funding—Sehba and the VBB Board have be innovative with programming. At the very first Words for Peace held in 2002, in response to September 11, Arundhati Roy, Ahmed Rashid, Naomi Shihab Nye and  Irena Klepfitz read their work live over speaker phones hooked to larger speakers while images were projected on the screens. Other series that VBB has offered include: South Asian film festivals, Palestinian film festivals as well as shows that tackle socio-political issues at all levels. Sehba’s new VBB production, Pakistan Live Broadcast, emerged from recognition that in the US, people don’t have a clear picture of the multi-faceted layers of Pakistan.

“Through western media, Pakistan is represented as an Islamic fundamentalist nation where all women are oppressed,” she said. “There’s media hype that a war is imminent between India and Pakistan, and in fact, Pakistan is being viewed less as less as part of the Subcontinent and more as part of Middle East.”

She added, “Through my project, I want to show an alternative side of Pakistan. Today, Pakistan is reaping the consequences of the Zia period, and it has not, as a country recovered from the damage done by Zia, Reagan and the early grooming of the Taliban movement. My mother, who attended Government College Lahore, was able to ride on her bicycle to college.” Nostalgically, she asserted, “That is a Pakistan I would like to see. My dadi and nani were practising religion but it was a personal choice. Some things have improved since the Zia years. But Pakistan is still at a very frightening place. The fact that the Taliban are now deeply entrenched in Swat and Peshawar, and are preventing women from education and work, is horrifying. In earlier decades, there was a clearer sense of what conflicts the country faced, and today there’s a more general fear of a violence that is faceless.”

“Projects like mine are just an attempt to show a different picture,” she added. “I’m specifically presenting an alternative view of Pakistan and taking it back to the US. Currently, I am using video footage to document my experiences in Pakistan such as trips I made into Interior Sindh as well as conversations that take place in gatherings at my parents’ home in Karachi. When I return to Houston, I plan to edit these images and create video collages and then exhibit them as art installations in people’s homes in a series that VBB calls ‘living room art.’ I’ll also be collecting images from Houston, and juxtaposing them against those of Pakistan and the purpose will be to show people the parallels and differences between the cultures. For one of the first short pieces that I used, I made a collage of protest rallies in Karachi, a gun show in Houston, and used sound of a radio interview and a poem I wrote after visiting the gun show.”

Sehba expressed hope that she would be able to bring the show back to Pakistan once it was completed. Through her project, she hoped that people would see another side of Pakistan and vice versa. “People are definitely interested in alternative perspectives being shown and I have my personal experience to speak about Pakistan. This is not political but personal,” she repeated.  “Or as my sister has said: the personal is political.”

Sehba Sarwar divides her time between
USA and Pakistan