Tahir Malik is a renowned human rights activist and rights defender. He has initiated several projects which are related to women empowerment and women social entrepreneurship. He is a man with a vision of how marginalised segments of society can be uplifted through promoting the culture of art. He has addressed and raised voice nationally and internationally for human rights. In this interview, Malik discuss his early activism and his vision of inspiring grassroots approach to development in Pakistan.Briefly explain how you started your journey from a student of arts to a development practitioner? For me studying arts was life, from childhood I always had a sense of exploring culture and its beauty. Even my parents, insisted that I pursue my studies in this field, so I did my Masters in Designing from National College of Arts, Lahore. This was the start for my career. It helped me to attain life skills and develop a sense of creativity. I believe studying arts is integral to our society, because we can refresh people and remind them of better things or transcendent realities. This is why we as artists believe that art is a form of creative human expression and a way to enrich the human experience. After completing my qualification, I started my development career in 2001 working with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) as a senior programme officer. The programme provided me the opportunity to learn and experience in community development approaches and participatory development strategies. Later on, I joined Aik Hunar Aik Nagar (AHAN) as a regional coordinator. But my struggle did not stop there; I decided to work for the poorest of the society. I always had a deep urge to fight against inequality and injustice. So based on 17 years of diversify and vast experience in the development sector, I joined Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) as a general manager and unit head of the institutions and integration unit. Nowadays I am looking after sector development, enterprise and skill development.If given a chance, what would you change in Pakistani culture? Pakistan boasts a rich and diverse cultural heritage, and multiple creative and artistic traditions. Someone rightly defined culture as the fragrance left behind when the incense stick of life has burnt out. No part of life – be it economic, cultural, religious or recreational – have been free from its effect. The old system of classification and stratification of society as a whole is changing gradually but surely and certainly.Pakistan is today at a crossroads due to challenges posed in the post 9/11 world — the world of so-called clash of civilizations — with an increasing polarisation between the Muslims and the Western world. The affect of negative images flashed around the world can only be countered through a cultural offensive. To achieve our objective of becoming a favoured country for investment, culture will need to be placed at the core of our development policies and propagated with every possible means. It is not only political and diplomatic strategies that will create a better image for our country. Let us promote our vision of a cultural Pakistan, ‘Saqafati Pakistan’, to provide another window to our country, a world removed from violence and negativism, promoting instead an image of a pluralistic Muslim country, a depository of rare cultural assets, along with historical memories and spiritual orientation of its people. Each public sector organisation and private sector, too, can be engaged in promoting our cultural resources, through even simple means of films, posters, images and leaflets. Let us not fritter away our family silver and the fragrance of the incense stick, but safeguard them and utilise them for creation of a cultural Pakistan, for not only development and well being of our people, but also for social and economic advancement of our nation. As a part of the PPAF, what do you think are the primary challenges faced by the women of Pakistan, specifically rural women? And how we can tackle them?Without equal participation in all spheres, no society can progress. As far as the capabilities of women are concerned, they are no less than men. They are performing their role as doctors, teachers, lawyers, and in many other fields but society still is not giving them their legitimate status. Women are ignored in the decision-making process and they are not promoted to higher positions even if they deserve it. They also face problems like sexual abuse and physical harassment. There has been recent legislation that has afforded them protection but it has not been implemented properly. Women will not be able to utilise their talents properly if they do not feel safe in their workplace, especially domestic workers. An attitude change is needed across the board and a good first step to affect that would be to implement existing women-friendly legislation in letter and spirit. Pakistan is experiencing a rapid increase in the number of women joining the workforce. But the country is grappling with physical, psychological and sexual harassment of women in the workplace. In the rural areas, poor women face many challenges; among those inequitable access to and control over land and assets are one of the major factors that aggravate poverty and deepen inequality. Pakistan has extremely poor gender equality indicators and highly discriminatory laws and practices against women. Women own less than three percent of the land; and the rare minority that does own land has no actual control over it. This situation is further worsened by overriding laws pertaining to women’s rights and the lack of supportive state structures and mechanisms for their protection when they claim these rights. Similarly, despite the improvement in Pakistan’s literacy rate, the educational status owomen is among the lowest in the world. The literacy rate for urban women is more than five times the rate for rural women. The literacy rate is still lower for women compared to men: the literacy rate is 45.8 percent for females, while for males it is 69.5 percent. PPAF in its efforts to tackle the education issue has successfully implemented education programmes across the country to support rural women and girls.What is the role of civil society in supporting women rights? For me a vibrant civil society is key to any democratic society. NGOs are important actors as they articulate the needs and interests of citizens. They work to hold governments accountable, lobby for change, carry out research, develop and mobilize constituencies and even provide direct services. The NGO experience in less developed countries especially in the context of Pakistan tends to be relatively new and somewhat fragile. Organisations are struggling to build their base, increase their capacity, establish their own infrastructures and define their roles. From a gender equality perspective, there are important issues relating to both mainstream organisations and organisations with a specific mandate to promote gender equality. The situation of women’s organizations and gender equality advocates varies throughout the region. The legacy of ‘forced emancipation’ of the communist era and the current economic crisis, have meant that it is often difficult for organisations to establish a profile and legitimacy. Yet, recent years have seen significant growth in the women’s movement and organisations working for gender equality. This movement has many faces. Throughout the region women’s organisations have campaigned against violence against women.These organisations are important vehicles for the representation of women’s interests and in building a constituency in support of gender equality. For example, trade unions should represent female as well as male members, environmental lobby groups should look at the impact on women and men of environmental problems, and poverty organisations should understand how women and men are affected by poverty and what strategies would assist all. The more that mainstream organisations advocate greater equality between women and men, the less likely it is that these issues will be seen merely as those of a ‘special interest group.’Can you share any examples of influential outcome or improved areas of work, which PPAF has done so far?PPAF has been working at two levels for gender mainstreaming and women empowerment, internally with the organisation and externally with partners and communities. PPAF from past many years is working hard to uplift the marginalised communities with different interventions. For this purpose, PPAF initiated a project on Ending Gender based Violence in 2015 at Layyah, Muzaffargarh, Multan. The basic purpose of this project was to employed radio as an effective tool to increase awareness of the masses in the three districts on the prevalence of gender based violence (GBV) and the role of the community members in countering such negative social practices. Another relatively innovative activity undertaken was the concept of listeners’ clubs or baithaks. Small gatherings were arranged at almost fifty locations in the three districts. Both men and women used this platform to discuss issues related to GBV including education, reproductive health, female inheritance rights, and developing positive social values. The women were given a voice, and men were made partners rather than adversaries through these gatherings.Do you consider yourself a feminist?Yes of course, feminism isn’t just about women’s rights; it’s about men’s rights too. I celebrate equality among all, men and women, and even more so the cultural shift that is allowing us to explore and embrace new opportunities to support each other and open new channels for collective growth. Feminism isn’t a brutal word anymore.The writter is a social and political activist based in Lahore. He has done his Masters and MPhil in Communication Studies.He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweets at Salmani_saluPublished in Daily Times, September 28th 2018.