Zubeida Mustafa: Visionary, Pioneer, and Trailblazer for Women in Leadership

by Katharine Daniels, Executive Editor
Post last week’s gains for women in the United States Senate and record numbers of women running for seats in Congress this election cycle, the country and the US media has been aflutter with insight and analysis about women and leadership. My attention and thoughts were on women and leadership in the days prior to Tuesday’s historic election as one of The WIP's contributors had just received the International Women’s Media Foundation’s (IWMF) 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award.

On Monday, October 29, Pakistani journalist Zubeida Mustafa was recognized for her ‘pioneering spirit and determination to pave the way for women in the news media.’ Attending the awards ceremony, I had the privilege of watching Zubeida address a packed ballroom that included well-respected journalists and Hollywood elite. I was struck by both the contradiction and the thrill of witnessing a WIP contributor – the same woman who has spent the last five years posting deeply moving personal accounts of social change in Pakistan – on stage at the legendary Beverly Hills Hotel receiving this high honor and recognition.

Zubeida was the first woman to work as an editor and columnist at the widely circulated English-language newspaper, Dawn. Her main responsibility over the course of her tenure from 1975 – 2008 was to provide editorial content for the paper, which was widely read by diplomats and Pakistan’s leadership. In 2008, nearing her retirement from the paper, Zubeida joined our collective of woman writers. I met Zubeida for tea the afternoon before the awards ceremony to discuss her work as an editor and writer and this award.

When Zubeida began her career it was assumed that women could not tackle “serious” issues. The stories that women were assigned were often about topics such as fashion and cooking and confined to the less popular and undervalued “women’s pages” of newspapers. Despite this bias, Zubeida’s work throughout her career has focused on social issues. These stories, she tells me, whether they are about education or healthcare, “invariably get linked to women and girls” and “like the Chinese say, ‘Women hold up the sky.’” She then adds, “It is supposed to be half, but I think they are holding up more than half.”

One message Zubeida delivered to the publication where she worked was “Women have a different perspective on things.” In what was a bold recommendation at the time, Zubeida suggested to her editor, why not “have a woman in every section so at least she could convey that perspective.” During her career she argued for hiring policies that would allow women to occupy all positions in the newsroom. “I wanted to create space for women and I thought if there were more, it would give them strength,” Zubeida tells the IWMF. In the end she not only created more space for women’s voices and perspectives but she was instrumental in getting the marginalized woman’s page at Dawn abolished entirely.

Yet this pioneering role for a woman was not without its challenges. When Zubeida began reporting and editorial writing it was not uncommon for her editors to hold the attitude that, “if [a story] is not so important, let the woman do it.” But according to Zubeida, “I turned that to my advantage.” Zubeida took lesser-reported topics and developed them to make clear their relationship to bigger questions about politics and society. The outcome was that critical stories deemed less important by editors – such as stories about women or economic inequality – were made important to all readers.

Zubeida’s strategy reminds me of the work of Anne Firth Murray, the founder of the Global Fund for Women and a professor at Stanford University. Anne spoke at The WIP’s International Women’s Day conference in 2011 and delivered the message that improving the health and well-being of the most vulnerable in society, often women, is the most effective way to leverage change to transform our societies. Thinking about this, I wonder: How we can we expect to improve the health and well-being of a population that is so marginalized that their stories rarely make it into the media? How can we expect readers to be informed about these critical issues when they are dismissed by editors and publishers? How can a story effectively change the conversation if, when it is published, it is only read by half the population?

A few year’s ago when I interviewed Linda Tarr Whelan, author of the book Women Lead the Way, I understood more fully what leadership balance means for the media. Linda told me that since only 3 percent of media “clout” positions are held by women, what is deemed newsworthy is skewed. In media, when women hold more of the leadership positions the context of stories delivered to the public will undoubtedly change. This is because who makes decisions matters. Simply put, she told me, changing who decides changes what is decided.

When Dawn added Zubeida’s voice as a columnist and her perspective as an editor it led to a range of stories not previously covered by the publication. Unfortunately, this pioneering spirit was not without backlash. Her editorials that questioned unethical practices by the pharmaceutical industry or that exposed the Pakistani government’s neglect of the public school system, invited criticism from her readers. An article on breast cancer even inspired a raid on the newspaper’s office by a group of religious conservatives who accused the paper of printing “obscene” content.

It became clear during our chat over tea that this dedicated, humble, and altruistic woman, whom I had only previously corresponded with by email, was a remarkable visionary. As we reflected on the stories she has covered for The WIP these past five years – whether it was the story Shabina, a widow utilizing her garage space to help poor children acquire an education or her interview with Parveen Rahman, who would like to see a kitchen garden in every home – I realized that Zubeida is the embodiment of the vision I am holding for social change. When women like Zubeida, all over the world, have the opportunity to report the stories that are important to them and their communities, in a format that is appreciated and accepted by men, women, editors, and readers everywhere, we will change the conversation.

The most common refrain I have heard since Tuesday’s election is that women are good at building consensus and getting things done. What I would like to add to the outcome of our election is the hope that in addition to building consensus, new leaders - women leaders - will, like Zubeida Mustafa, draw our attention to the world’s most pressing problems and make them important to us.

The IWMF’s recognition of Zubeida is a huge step toward recognizing the powerful correlation between supporting women journalists and creating social change.

About the Author: Katharine Daniels is the founder and executive editor of The WIP.

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2 comments on “Zubeida Mustafa: Visionary, Pioneer, and Trailblazer for Women in Leadership
  1. djohnsonak says:

    Congratulations to Zubeida! I have enjoyed Zubeida’s articles and story telling on The WIP over the years and I am so pleased that she is being recognized for her hard work and passion.
    I think this also speaks so much to the hard work and dedication of The WIP to ensuring a balanced media and allowing women to be empowered all over the world. To quote Gandhi, The WIP contributors and The WIP community are “the change [we] wish to see in the world.”
    Thank you to the leaders, the writers, the editors…the women who inspire me everyday.

  2. MichelleTolson says:

    I agree. Have read and enjoyed her writing and am pleased she is being honored for her hard work…and that the WIP is also honored through her. The WIP does great work getting global voices–both foreign journalists’ and development workers’ writing a place in the international sphere. Kudos to both.

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