Aysha Baqir, an expat in Singapore, grew up in Pakistan. Her time in college sparked a passion for economic development. In 1998 she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. Her novel Beyond the Fields was published in January 2019 and she was invited to launch her book at the Lahore and Karachi Literary Festivals. She and her book were also featured in the Singapore Writers Festival and Money FM Career 360 in Singapore. In this exclusive, she talks of her work in Karvaans and her writing, telling us how it all happened.
You have been working on development of women in Pakistan and writing. Which came first, writing or the developmental work?
My development work in the villages of South Punjab from 1998 to 2012, in part, inspired me to write the fictional novel, Beyond the Fields.
I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan. Graduating as the valedictorian of my class I won a scholarship to Mount Holyoke College. My classes in International Relations and Economics sparked a passion for economic development and opened my eyes to the poverty around the world and in my home country, Pakistan.
Upon my return to Pakistan, I saw that the poor didn’t need my sympathy — they needed access to economic resources and networks before they could voice their demands for social justice. In 1998, armed with an MBA from LUMS, I led an enterprise development program that later emerged into a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, focused on poverty alleviation through the provision of business development and market-focused trainings for girls and women in low income communities.
In 2013, I relocated to Singapore. The spark in my writing process came from the time I spent in the villages and the voices of the village women. During the time in the villages, my life interfaced closely with girls and women and my admiration and respect for their determination, strength and humour in times of despair grew immensely — with so little they managed to achieve so much. The characters in the novel are fictional but the voices are real. Zara, the protagonist in Beyond the Fields challenges the roles that have been defined for her, determined instead to persevere, fight for justice, and achieve her dreams.
When and how did Karvaan foundation start? What are the kinds of people you aim to empower and why?
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2019, Pakistan ranks 151th in a list of 153 countries. The institutional and structural provisions for women to live their lives are non-existent, and there is a dearth of basic freedom for women across the country. Kaarvan Crafts Foundation is a not-for-profit organization based out of Lahore Pakistan that works for the empowerment of women while implementing United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 5, to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls on the ground in Pakistan.
I founded Kaarvan Foundation in 2004 with the objective to strive towards global development goals on a local level by creating opportunities for income generation among girls and women in poor communities, by strengthening their skills, business capacities, thereby facilitating them in accessing market linkages and economic opportunities and improving their quality of life and that of their families. The Foundation works in over 1000 villages across 15 districts in Pakistan. It has trained over 24,000 women entrepreneurs in 250 development centers and linked over 8000 women sales agents to markets to date.
Tell us about the work this foundation is doing. How many volunteers do you have?
The Foundation is a Not for Profit Company that trains girls and women to access market opportunities directly through providing them with the relevant focused trainings under Value Chain Development Programs. The Foundation has full time and project employees and encourages volunteers to join the summer internship program.
You have many sponsors. How do these sponsorships help you?
Kaarvan Foundation works with international aid agencies to implement programs that enable women and girls to directly access market opportunities. The International Sponsorships provide funds to the Foundation to implement the projects and the benefits of accessing markets and getting orders continue to accrue to the girls and women long after the projects close.
Living in Singapore, are you able to still contribute to Karvaans? If so, how?
I continue to be on the Board of Kaarvan Foundation and contribute to the strategic growth and development of the Foundation.
You have written a powerful novel, Beyond the Fields, centring around two sisters and the Hudood ordinance. Tell us about it.
Beyond the Fields is a gripping tale of resilience and reclaiming honor in which the rape of a fifteen-year-old girl living in a remote village of Pakistan drives her twin sister on a dangerous quest for justice. Set in the early 1980s against the backdrop of martial law and social turmoil, Beyond the Fields, brings up close the fears and hopes of women in Pakistan. It is a riveting and timely look at profound inequality, traditions that disempower women in our world, and survival as a dance to the beat of a different future.
What inspired the story?
Beyond the Fields is story is about a young village girl called Zara. Zara is carefree – she has dreams, she want to study, and wants to become someone important. She loves kairis (raw mangoes) so she disobeys her mother and steals into the orchard. And then on one ordinary day, Zara’s twin sister, Tara, the one she is closest to in the whole wide world, is kidnapped from the fields while they are playing a game of hide and seek and raped.
Having worked in the villages of Punjab, Pakistan for over fifteen years, I wanted to show the plight of village girls and women. Thousands of girls and women are assaulted each year and the abuse continues without any substantial family, community, or legal support. And, just not in Pakistan, but across cultures and continents.
I deliberately set the story under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. I was twelve years old when my mother dragged me to a march called by WAF or Women’s Action Forum. Being an introverted teenager studying in American School, I didn’t want to go. But my mother insisted saying it was important for me to see what was happening in our country.
The protest was for Safia Bibi — a young blind girl a few years older than me — who had been raped by her employer and his son. She didn’t report the crime. Because she showed clear signs of pregnancy and was unmarried, it was assumed she had premarital sex. Her failure to prove that she was raped prompted the judge to sentence her (under the Hudood ordinance) to three years of imprisonment and 15 lashes. The ruling cast her as the perpetrator instead of the victim. Her rapists were never prosecuted and did not spend any time in jail.
At the protest, I stood with my mother along with hundreds of other women — and the memory of us standing under the sweltering sun for hours with other women protestors jammed across the mall road demanding justice for Safia Bibi haunts me to this day and to this day I shudder thinking that if it wasn’t an accident of birth, it could have been me. I wrote Beyond the Fields to start a discussion to challenge the unjust mind-sets that condemn and punish girls and women who have been raped. I wrote the novelto start a conversation about rape and sexual assault and I hope we don’t stop talking about the issues until we create the change we owe to girls and women across the world.
Finally, I wrote Beyond the Fields, to allow the readers to see the lives of village folk in Pakistan — they possess incredible strength and resilience. It is a glimpse into what makes them laugh, cry, betray, and come together.
Do you think your novel has impacted the world in a way to change it for better?
I have been overwhelmed with the number of women reaching out to me to share their stories not just in Pakistan but from all over the world. According to World Health Organization (WHO), estimate nearly one in every three women worldwide has been physically or sexually abused by their partners or experienced non-partner sexual violence. Rape is a silent epidemic. And we need to take action now.
Has Kaarvan impacted the women you aimed to help?
Kaarvan’s work has had a significant impact on the girls and women not only in the target and neighbouring communities. The impact can be measured through economic indicators such as increase in income, change in asset base, changes in diet and schooling of children and social indicators such as changes in decision making, changes in household chores, and mobility. You can read more about Kaarvan’s social impact on its web page (www.kaarvan.com). During the COVID19 pandemic Kaarvan, through remote learning workshops, prepared the women entrepreneurs for digital readiness and “Digital Enablement”, which constituted of a range of trainings given to group of micro-entrepreneurs who connected remotely from their mobile phones on platform best suited for the training. Kaarvan facilitated Digital Market Linkages through enabling the entrepreneurs to participate in two online exhibitions.
Do these women teach you? If so, what have you learnt working with them?
The Value Chain Development approach focuses on understanding the needs of women entrepreneurs and they are viewed as the customers of the program rather than the beneficiaries. Hence, there is constant learning from women about how they take decisions, how they want to grow their businesses, how they overcome their challenges. The learnings are documented in the internal and external impact reports and well as the case studies.
You are working on a new novel. What is it about and when can we hope to read it? What are your future plans for your writing and Karavaans?
My work in progress, Forsaken for Saints, is a fiction about longing, deception, and betrayal that delves into a web of conspiracies that extends from expat cosmos to the walled city of Lahore. I am privileged and blessed to continue to write because it enables me to explore critical and pertinent issues through stories and to share them with the readers to question and comment.
This interview was conducted online by Mitali Chakravarty.
Originally published in Borderless Journal