5 Inspiring Women from Pakistan

Saddled between Asia’s power houses India and China, bordering tumultuous Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan is incredibly heterogeneous with over 70 local dialects, an array of religions and disparate ethnicities.

From religious extremism that threatens termination of girls’ education, to winning the Oscars (Saving Face, directed by Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, won Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2012), Pakistani women here live in an immensely complex irony of disparate identities. Their women leaders, both established and emerging, and sometimes unrecognized, are indeed fascinating.

Consider Jehan Ara, President of the internationally recognized Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT & ITES (P@SHA). She is a motivator, an entrepreneur, a social activist and a strong propagator of extending the power and use of Information and Communication Technologies beyond pure traditional business, to empower and enable communities.

At the Lahore University of Management’s (LUMS) Computer Science Department,close to 40% of total undergraduates enrolled are women in a traditionally male-dominated program.

Marium Afzal, who topped her graduating class of 2010 currently consults with the World Bank, building citizen’s feedback technology platforms for the Provincial Government of Punjab in Pakistan. 

Consider Saba Gul, an engineer-turned-social-entrepreneur. Having earned two degrees from MIT, Saba worked in the Silicon Valley for a while before moving to Pakistan to work on BLISS full-time. BLISS is a sustainable fashion enterprise that supports marginalized women and girls living in low-income communities in Pakistan.

Another social entrepreneur Roshaneh Zafar forsook her World Bank career to set up Kashf Foundation, Pakistan's first microfinance institution, in 1996. She started with a $10,000 loan from the Grameen Trust, Rs. 100,000 of her own, and 15 clients. 

Today, Kashf, part of the Forbes's list of the world's top microfinance institutions, has more than over 300,000 clients, and has disbursed more than $202 million in small loans to poor women.

Finally, Shahnaz Wazir Ali, a political advisor to the most recent President of Pakistan, an educator and philanthropist, is also the architect of the Benazir Income Support Programme, the largest social cash transfer program in the country, where most of the payments innovation has played out bringing the very poor into the financial system, according to Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) at the World Bank.

Notwithstanding ranking of 123 out of 187 countries on gender inequality index (India scored lower standing at 132) according to the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Report 2013, women in Pakistan are inherently innovative, constantly negotiating and maneuvering, and re-defining the spaces they inhabit.

T. Keyzom Ngodup is a development entrepreneur . In Pakistan, she is co-founder of Developyst, a local and youth-driven social enterprise that uses innovative technologies and data-driven interventions to scale-up bottom of pyramid's access to high quality education in Pakistan.

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