Writing of love and loss in the heart of Pakistan
17-year-old Zohra Shehzad hopes to become her country’s next great romance novelist but gender discrimination limits her opportunities.
In the heart of Pakistan, 17-year-old Zohra Shehzad can be found feverishly writing in her journal. What captures Zohra’s imagination are the feelings of love, pain and loneliness that she observes around her home city of Karachi, a bustling industrial and financial centre.
The aspiring romance novelist began writing in ninth grade when her classmates started to date. The melodrama of teen love with its passionate ups and downs piqued her interest and she took to writing romance. Zohra is currently working on a novel about a girl in isolation. The heroine has strict parents, no sisters to confide in and a secret love for a man she can not have. Zohra describes the story as a rollercoaster with many twists.
Romance is just one of the themes in Zohra’s writing. “Whenever I find a topic that needs to be raised up, I write about it,” she says. Girls’ education is an issue Zohra believes needs to be discussed in Pakistan. She was recently runner-up in a girls’ education essay contest held by Bolo Jawan, an online platform for youth voices run by Pakistan Youth Change Advocates. In her winning piece, Zohra wrote about how the entire country benefits when girls are educated for 12 years.
Zohra sees firsthand the difficulties Pakistani girls face when going to school. Although her parents are supportive of her education, Zohra’s relatives “questioned my parents about why they are letting me study like my brother and that I should get married soon.” Zohra further explains that “[Child marriage] is the biggest barrier for girls in our society, their families forcefully get them married at age 13 or 14.” Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school girls of any country in the world.
The benefits of 12 years of schooling are clear to Zohra, who just finished her secondary education: “It helps you to see the world with better perspective. Education helps in opening your mindset and helps in expanding your thoughts.” She hopes to be able to save enough money to attend university in the future. Zohra plans to put the prize money from the Bolo Jawan essay contest towards her tuition — although she used some of it already to buy herself a few more novels!
What frustrates Zohra is how young women like her are limited in their career opportunities because of their gender. The literary world is dominated by men and she has difficulty being accepted as a young female writer. “Pakistani society is not used to the idea of girls being writers,” she explains. Naysayers have already tried to dissuade her from pursuing this path, but Zohra plans to persevere. She's determined to publish her first novel and make sure that future generations of female writers don’t experience the same discrimination: “When I become a writer, I won’t let girls face anything like that.”
Thank you to Areebah Shahid, Malala Fund Gulmakai Champion and head of programmes at Pakistan Youth Change Advocates, for connecting us with Zohra. Malala Fund supports the work of education activists like Areebah who are breaking down barriers to girls’ education in their communities.
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About the author
Omolara Uthman is a Malala Fund editorial intern and student at Johns Hopkins University. She loves reading, writing and food photography.