Confinement within the limits of gender-subordinate world never restrained Ayesha Khan from following her dreams of becoming an accomplished film producer, director and actress in Pakistan’s independent film industry. Having faced harsh impediments growing up as a female in Pakistan, the American immigrant in her 40s has strived for greatness, and refuses to keep her success under a veil of shame.
Khan was born in Lahore, Pakistan where she fought a constant, ugly battle against gender bias and inequality. Women’s educational status in Pakistan is among the lowest in the world, and violence against women is a lingering problem. As a child, Khan remembers Lahore as a very cultural city, filled with wide appreciation for the arts. But when General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took over as president in 1977, the city of Lahore was stripped of its arts programs and the women stripped of their rights.
“They started running ads on TV targeting women with something almost like a nursery rhyme: ‘The four walls and the veil are the best way for women to live,’ ” Khan said. “Zia-ul-Haq wanted no joy in life. He literally went around dismantling our once vibrant musical industry.”
Though most Pakistani people in the 70s were Muslims, religion had always been kept a private matter, Khan said. But Zia-ul-Haq manipulated Islamic law into family law, imposing it on the Pakistani people.
“He reinterpreted the law to the most chauvinistic set of laws as I’ve seen in any Islamic culture,” Khan said. “Which is remarkable when you think of it, given Islam is the most liberal, of all monotheistic religions, toward women.”
One of the worst changes Zia-ul-Haq made to the law was the issue of rape, according to Khan. Zia-ul-Haq imposed the Hudood Ordinance unto family law, meaning anything punishable under the Quran—the Islamic religious text—was now also punishable by law. The Hudood Ordinance, for example, made adultery illegal; ergo, if a woman said she was raped, she would be admitting to committing adultery. If she could not produce four male witnesses to the crime, she would be sentenced to jail.
“About 2,000 women were still in jail for being raped 15 to 20 years later, even after Zia-ul-Haq’s reign ended when he died in 1988,” Khan said.
According to Khan she never suffered under the Hudood Ordinance, but she was a victim of unethical imprisonment.
“I remember going to rallies for women’s rights, along with my mother, family friends and neighbors,” Khan said. “The police would baton all the women and send us to jail.”
Khan was able to escape the turbulence of Pakistan when she enrolled in a foreign exchange program which allowed her to complete high school in Canada. She then moved to the United States to attend Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts where she studied theater and religion. Khan soon became involved in the film industry, and in 2004, she began her own film company, Indus Valley Productions.
Khan has since become a huge success in Pakistan’s independent film industry, affording her success to a documentary she produced and directed, “Made in Pakistan,” a feature film she produced, “Kafsh: Lifting the Veil” and other short films.
Since Khan left Pakistan 15 years ago, women have more protection since the Hudood Ordinance was replaced with the Women’s Protection Bill. Still, women face many injustices in Pakistan, and the violence persists.
Khan recognizes that being in the film industry is not only out of the ordinary, but frowned upon in her community, but says her drive to promote positive change gave her the perseverance to pursue her dreams in the arts.
When Khan speaks of gender bias and inequality, she is not only speaking of the women in Pakistan, but all over the world, she said.
“This isn’t a third world Pakistan issue,” Khan said. “I think we have a lot of boundaries to transcend here.” Considering presidential candidates’ stances on abortion issues and contraception, Kahn said: “In 2012, do we (women) not have the right to our own bodies?”
Khan said the best solution to problems of worldwide gender bias is to address them head on.
“We need to make a lot of noise,” Khan said. “We must be engaged and concerned about our rights as citizens all the time…we cannot turn a blind eye.”
Sponsored by the Ernst and Young Lecture Series, Khan is scheduled to speak to students at Oswego State in a talk entitled, “Women Transcending Boundaries.” The event will be held Feb. 14 at the Campus Center Auditorium, room 132, at 6 p.m.