Recent years have seen a slew of Pakistani women win an array of international awards from the Nobel Peace Prize to multiple Academy Awards and now the latest — Gulalai Ismail and Saba Ismail have been awarded the prestigious Chirac Prize in Paris. Their award was for ‘conflict prevention’ and is recognition of their work with the NGO they co-founded ‘Aware Girls’ that few will have heard of. They add their names to an impressive honour roll — Malala Yousafzai, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Nighat Dad have all been honoured multiple times internationally but rarely in their own country, and Malala Yousafzai is at such risk of her life in Pakistan that making a visit home is unthinkable.
All of these women are exceptional in some way, and in several instances are something of a thorn in the side of the conservative establishment. They challenge prevailing norms and push back repressive or intrusive legislation. The two latest recipients of the Chirac award have worked since 2002 seeking to strengthen the leadership skills of the younger generation and particularly women and girls. They develop the skills in others that allow them to become change agents, building their capacity as peacemakers and empowering women in communities where women empowerment has never been on the agenda of patriarchal cultures.
Pakistan is to say the least ambivalent about these prize-winning women. For Obaid-Chinoy there is the accusation that she only highlights what is the worst of Pakistan, for Malala that she is a tool of foreign agencies, for Dad that she is a troublemaker. Today Gulalai and Saba join the company of women that make a difference, that have fought and will continue to fight against powerful and malign forces — and Pakistan needs more of them. Moreover, they need to be recognised and honoured within as they are without if the dead weight of patriarchy is to be eroded. Fight the good fight Gulalai and Saba, and we are with you.