Zubeida Mustafa speaks modestly about her 33 years as a journalist in Pakistan, where she worked through extreme political instability, media censorship, gender barriers and social upheaval as the assistant editor of Dawn, a widely-respected English-language daily newspaper.
Her optimism sometimes subverts the challenges she faced as the first woman to work in mainstream media in her country and as a pioneer in reporting seriously on women’s issues, as well as politics, education, health and culture.
Her thorough, facts-based reporting and editorial writing earned the respect of her colleagues and many in the political and diplomatic communities. It also landed criticism from those who thought the subjects she chose were trivial, or even offensive.
“The attitude was, ‘if it’s not so important, let the woman do it,’ Mustafa said, “but I turned that to my advantage.”
She did so by taking lesser-reported topics like health and making clear their relationship to bigger questions about politics and society. As the only woman in the Dawn newsroom during the 1970’s, Mustafa explained that she used gender segregation to cover stories men couldn’t. During Russia’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, Mustafa traveled to refugee camps to interview women driven away from their homes by war. “A man would have had a much more difficult time” getting the story, Mustafa said.
Crediting her male colleagues at Dawn for recognizing the value of her work, Mustafa said she did receive backlash for some of her stories from readers. In her editorials, she criticized the pharmaceutical industry for unethical practices and the government for ill-maintained public schools; her editors received angry phone calls, but Mustafa continued to examine tough topics in her pieces.
When she wrote an article on breast cancer, a group of religious conservatives raided Dawn and accused the paper of printing “obscene” content. Undeterred, Mustafa went on to write about contraception and reproductive health. She also covered the case of rape victim turned women’s advocate Mukhtar Mai when other writers were afraid to mention it.
A reporter must ignore critics and write the truth, Mustafa said. “Even if it is a tiny little drop in the ocean, you know you have made a contribution,” she said. “So then you can have a clear conscience.”
As Mustafa’s career as assistant editor – the second-highest position at Dawn – evolved, the central theme of her work became the inequalities she witnessed in Pakistani society. “There is one person who can get anything he or she wants, but there is another person who might be so good but is not getting any opportunities,” Mustafa explained the impetus for her work. She cites the biggest influence on her career as “the people I have met.”
Unequal treatment of men and women was a reality when Mustafa began working in the 1960’s: a condition that, she admits, still exists today. In the early years of her career, she said, there was “a social bias against women working. Especially married women, because they were expected to stay at home and bring up babies and change nappies.”
Mustafa said professional women had to form a perfect balance of work and family “to show people that we could do both.” Mustafa was born in 1941, before Pakistan was a country, in India. She moved to the newly-formed nation with her family as a young girl. She was a bright student who always loved to write. Even so, she didn’t plan on becoming a journalist.
At a time when Pakistani women were discouraged from seeking education, Mustafa earned a B.A. and an M.A. in international relations from the University of Karachi.
Her career began with a job at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, where she worked as a research officer in the 1960’s.
Her break into journalism came after she stopped working for a few years to tend to two young daughters. After her second child started school, Mustafa began to look for new work. That was when the editor of Dawn newspaper called her about the assistant editor position.
“Very frankly, I had never even stepped into a newspaper office,” Mustafa said. But her years of work as a researcher had given her ample experience with information gathering and writing.
The assistant editor’s main responsibility was providing editorial content for the paper, which was widely read by diplomats and Pakistan’s leadership. So Mustafa accepted the post and embarked on a career at Dawn that spanned from 1975 to 2008.
Her start as a journalist may have been a matter of chance, but Mustafa recognized the importance of her role for other women. At the time she started at Dawn, women were “on the sidelines” of media, she explained.
In addition to becoming the first woman in Dawn’s newsroom, Mustafa became the first woman on the editorial board, where she fought to gain coverage in the paper for the burgeoning women’s movement.
She advocated running stories with women’s voices in all sections instead of relegating them to a “women’s page”. She argued for hiring policies that would allow women to occupy all positions in the newsroom. “I wanted to create space for women and I thought if there were more, it would give them strength,” Mustafa said.
During her tenure at Dawn, Mustafa launched several new sections including Health Page, CareerWise and Karachi Notebook. For her work on Books & Authors, the first book magazine to be published by a newspaper in Pakistan, she received an award from the Pakistan Publishers and Booksellers Association in 2005. Mustafa also led production of the One World Supplement at Dawn, published in the early 1980s in partnership with 15 newspapers from all over the world. This project allowed her to travel to places like South Africa and Sweden, among others.
She held fast through challenges faced by all Pakistani journalists, like attempts to quash free press. Mustafa recalled a time when nothing could be published “without information officers deciding what could go in and what should come out”.
She said the government exerted absolute control over press and that “they could just decide they didn’t like the paper and then close the paper…and the editor would end up in jail.”
Transitions from a military to civilian government and back created instability that left freedom of speech in jeopardy, according to Mustafa. She said the democracy of Pakistan “is kind of like musical chairs.”
Things are much better now for media than during the tumultuous period in the middle of her career, Mustafa said. “But now there are dangers of a different kind,” she said, with journalists facing more physical threat.
Despite her official retirement in 2008, Mustafa remains a prolific writer. With failing eyesight, she still regularly contributes columns to Dawn. She recently completed her second book and takes up editing projects periodically.
Her former paper now employs many women at all levels. Some current Dawn employees had Mustafa as a personal mentor; all of them consider her an inspiration.
“Ms. Mustafa is the only Pakistani who is and will remain the ultimate role model for women journalists,” said Dawn colleague Khuda Bux Abro. “She has never craved for any kind of personal gain or appreciation because people like her serve society selflessly.”