When I first mooted the idea of establishing a writing prize in my mother’s name, there were many naysayers. “No-one reads in Pakistan”, commented one cousin, “you’ll be lucky if you get twenty entries”. Three years in and nearly 900 submissions (in 2 years) later, I am gratified to see the Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women firmly embedded in the Pakistani literary landscape as the standard bearer in the field.
When I consider its success, I attribute it to several things.
First and foremost are its feminist credentials, which developed more or less organically. Inviting women to tell their stories soon revealed common themes: a longing for greater freedoms; a desire to participate in public life and have gender equality; calling out misogyny, injustice and mistreatment of women by all segments of society. Many women see this feminism as the Prize’s heritage, reinforced visually by the image of our logo which features a young Zeenat photographed in 1948 by LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White expressing the vigour, vitality and hope with which young women greeted the dawn of the new nation, eager to play their part in every field.
Second was the role that electronic media played, not only in publicising the call for submissions, but also in promoting the new writing that was discovered through the prize. Social media was instrumental in spreading the word, but publication of the stories on our website garnered acclaim for the authors on an international platform, which would have been all but impossible in an earlier, non-digital age. One thing that has been completely astonishing is the reach of the prize, from the remotest parts of the country like Hunza and Turbat, through the diaspora worldwide. Again, organic spread through social media has caught us by surprise.
Next, the calibre of the judging panel has encouraged the very best of our aspiring women writers to test their mettle by subjecting their work to the scrutiny of respected literary figures. From inaugural year judge, anthologist and critic Muneeza Shamsie, to this year’s panellist, her daughter Kamila, the prize has managed to win support from among the best of Pakistani literati including publishers Ameena Saiyyid and Faiza Khan, journalists Ahmed Rashid, Homa Khaleeli, and the late Irfan Husain, authors Moni Mohsin, Saadia Quareshi Shepard, Alice Albinia and Hanif Kureshi and academic Prof Maryam Wasif Khan who have all offered their time, enthusiasm and expertise pro-bono.
Finally, I’m convinced that the active participation of family members in any charitable venture is essential in making it successful. My daughter, Shan Vahidy has worked tirelessly in reading submissions and co-ordinating the judging panel and nieces Homa Khaleeli, Selina Rashid and Alia Shoaib have also played significant roles. Lately people have been telling me to institutionalise the Prize, register as a charity, form a committee, gather funds from external sources, but throwing money at it will come to nothing unless there is the active participation of enthusiastic volunteers and especially family members. I’m hoping many of the talented contestants who have supported this venture will come on board with their specific skills whether as artists and graphic designers or as IT experts (this website really needs a professional touch!)
There are also important lessons I have learned while running the Prize. A light-bulb moment was when I realised how desperate women are to tell their stories. Although I considered a writing competition to be a channel for writers to display their literary skills, it seems many women viewed it as a forum to share in intimate detail, their personal dilemmas, experiences and traumas even if their writing ability in English was very limited. In that sense it was gratifying to put to rest the traditional idea that Pakistani women, especially from remote rural areas, are shrinking violets. Pakistani women have a voice and opinions which they are not loath to exercise given the opportunity, and I hope many platforms will arise (at least online) which will afford them that opportunity. Another lesson I have learned is that there are plenty of good, kind, supportive people and organisations who will provide pro-bono help and encouragement for a well-conceived venture. (My own personal angels are thanked elsewhere on this website.)
But the most salutary lesson of all is discovering that there is enormous talent amongst women in Pakistan both literary and otherwise. Writers, journalists, artists, filmmakers, sportswomen, broadcasters, actors, musicians, comediennes, scientists and entrepreneurs are increasingly being acclaimed internationally and winning kudos among their peers globally. What the prize has made me do is to seek them out and promote them and for that widening of my horizons, I am truly grateful.
And yet, in the end I am still left wondering, who is the genius behind Swinery?