Nazima Shafique

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–As she answers phones, scours wire service reports for breaking news and researches feature stories, Nazima Shafique looks like any one of the other two dozen journalists working in the Pakistan Television (PTV) newsroom.

And that is just the way the 28-year-old news anchor–who has battled two of the harshest forms of discrimination in Pakistani society to pursue her career–wants it to be.

“When people look at me, I want them to see a person who can work just as well as anyone else in this room, that there is nothing different or special about me,” she says.

As gutsy as she is humble, the cherub-faced journalist, however, is anything but ordinary.

The PTV news anchor, disabled by a severe case of childhood polio, is one of only four women in Pakistan presenting the nightly news.

In a country where only 25 percent of women work, Shafique challenges the male-dominated status quo of most newsrooms and the cultural tendency, in a country still struggling with polio, to expect little of the disabled.

Although Pakistan passed a 1981 law to reserve 2 percent of the workforce for disabled persons and a 2002 law to integrate disabled children into the education system, many social workers complain of lax enforcement and little change in social attitudes.

“It’s an engrained belief that disabled people are a burden, that they will never contribute to a family’s earnings other than perhaps as a beggar on the street,” says Islamabad-based social worker Aisha Hamid. “Sadly, changing this perception has just not been a priority for successive governments, and many disabled persons and their families remain utterly ignorant about the possibilities to better their lives.”

Over 80 percent of disabled persons in Pakistan remain unemployed.

A Running Mind

As an 18-month old baby, Shafique developed a persistent fever that doctors in her eastern Punjabi village failed to properly diagnose as polio until her mother woke up one morning to find her baby daughter unable to move.

Pakistan is one of only six countries where polio still strikes, and the government has joined hands with United Nation’s organizations to wipe out the scourge through mass publicized three-day nationwide vaccination campaigns. Officials hope to eradicate the disease by the start of 2005.

After her diagnosis, Shafique spent the next 16 years in treatment. Unable to walk at all until she was 10, she progressed to the current point, where she gets around on crutches and specially made shoes. Her parents did not allow her to feel sorry for herself. They pushed her to attend school regularly and ride a school-provided mini-van that had no facilities for children with special needs.

“They treated me exactly the same as my other siblings and made it clear I should expect no allowances for my condition,” she says of her parents. “In fact, the word bechari (pitiful person) was taboo in our household.”

Their version of tough love forced Shafique to develop inner strength and confidence. If her legs would not allow her to run, Shafique reasoned, her mind would.

She joined high school debating and speech classes and went on to win the All Pakistan Urdu Speech Competition in 1995. Winning the competition helped her get a screen test and then presenter position at Radio Pakistan. From there she moved to print media and wrote for the Daily Ausaf in local Urdu while pursuing a master’s degree in Urdu literature.

In 1999, she applied for her dream job as news editor for the national television station PTV. A year and half later, Shafique tested and won a news anchor position. “All along I hoped to get myself into a position of strength where I could help others pursue their dreams,” she said. “PTV is a major step in that direction providing valuable exposure and with PTV being the national station adding to a more positive impression of how women and disabled people are viewed by influential companies.”

Within a year and a half, Shafique found herself in front of the camera anchoring the PTV World news show, joining the ranks of just a handful of Pakistani women in the public eye.

Championing the Disabled and Women

While her advocacy efforts focus mainly on the disabled who, unlike women do not have dozens of high-profile advocacy groups and non-profit organizations championing their cause, Shafique also touts women’s potential. “Men here think they know more than the women,” she says of Pakistani society. “And that may be true, but only because they are allowed more opportunities than females.”

“Though they are a minority,” she adds, “some of Pakistan’s best lawyers, doctors, journalists and politicians are women. We are a valuable resource for our country that is being grossly underused.”

Today, while working a daily shift from 3 p.m. until 11 p.m.–with a 40-minute commute each way–Shafique struggles to spread a more positive and uplifting message about disabled people and the role of women in Pakistani society. She makes frequent appearances on television shows, visits schools and gives magazine interviews every chance she gets.

“She is the Pakistani version of a ‘poster child’ for what people can achieve when they refuse to give in,” said Hamid, the social worker. “Her story is an inspiration.”

Though her message may not have caused a seismic shift in public attitudes toward the disabled in Pakistan, she has directly touched the lives of disabled people such as Shamma Sattar, a 25-year old polio survivor.

“Coming in the face of such difficulties, Nazima’s success gives people like me courage, pride and the will to continue when things get particularly tough,” Sattar says. “When it comes to the disabled, a few succeed beyond anyone’s expectations while the vast majority are completely left behind. For us, there is no ‘in between.'”

Determined to be follow Shafique’s path, Sattar graduated from a local Information Technology College two years ago and now teaches computers in an Islamabad suburb secondary school. “Even the nicest people react when they see you,” she says. “And when you go for job interviews people will say ‘We’ll call you when there’s a position that requires less work’ . . . It’s like your qualifications aren’t noticed, only your physical appearance.”

Shafique has fielded calls from desperate parents of disabled children looking for the recipe to her success. “Don’t let anybody convince you that your child has less rights than any other child,” she tells them.

She also speaks out often on behalf of disabled people, insisting that even those with the most severe problems can overcome their obstacles with hard work and determination. It’s a message, she says, the government must do more to promote.

“It’s not the physical part of a person that matters, but their inner self that makes them what they are,” Shafique says. “All great people are remembered for the services they did or the great minds they had, they are not remembered for what they looked like.”

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times.

For more information:

World Health Organization–
Polio eradication: now more than ever, stop polio forever: