Karachi, Pakistan | Sub-editor/writer, Daily Ibrat
Training Fellow | Host: Columbia Missourian
By Yuliana Romanyshyn |
When she was a child in a small city in central Pakistan, Veengas Yasmin’s mother gave her a gift that changed the course of her life.
It was a book by Oriana Fallaci, “Interviews with History,” a compilation of the groundbreaking Italian journalist’s seminal interviews with world leaders from Moammar Gadhafi to Henry Kissinger.
Veengas derives her strength and inspiration from her mother, who raised eight children by herself. She decided to follow Fallaci’s path and become a writer.
“I am a bookish girl and very shy person, but I’ve seen that writing has the power to change society,” she said. “So I promised myself that I will reveal the truth through writings.”
In the beginning, she was told journalism is no place for a women in Pakistan.
“Even the lady who was a prime minister couldn’t survive, so how you will manage to do it?” peers told her, recalling the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to achieve that position in her country. Male journalists suggested that Veengas concentrate on soft stories.
With 115 killings in a quarter century, Pakistan is the fourth-deadliest country for journalists, behind Mexico, Philippines and Iraq, according to a recent report by the International Federation of Journalists.
But neither discouragement nor fear has deterred Veengas. (Professionally, she uses just her first name. She also uses her mother’s maiden name as her surname.)
Her career began as a political columnist for a Sindhi newspaper in 2002 and she gradually gained credibility with readers. Payments for writing four columns per month provided her sole source of income while studying history in Azam University Islamabad.
“You can’t understand an issue without historic perspective,” she said, emphasizing the role of her background. “The history gives us not only the data but critical approach.”
Veengas has been a journalist for 15 years now and writes in her native Sindhi language for the Daily Ibrat newspaper in Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan and one of the most crowded places in the world.
As a freelancer, she writes in English for The Friday Times and the Frontier Post in Pakistan, The Wire in India and other international media outlets.
While writing for local media, she noticed that English-language journalism outlets adopted a selective approach, and were unwilling responsibly cover local stories. “They might ignore some topics or misspeak,” she said. As English is the second official language in her country, along with Urdu, she decided to reach this audience too.
Veengas writes about human rights violations, oppression of women and minorities, political conflicts, problems stemming from religious extremism and terrorism. She’s covered the insurgency in Balochistan and “Mushrooming Madrassas” in Karachi.
Journalism of impact, in spite of threats
Still, she challenges the stereotype that a woman should be guided by a man, and she is known to travel alone to assignments. The established media tends to watch their step more meticulously, she said. “It is especially hard to report about non-Muslim people in an Islamic state,” she said. Sometimes, she added, English-language media refuses to publish stories because they are afraid of the state’s reaction.
Veengas considers reporting on controversial topics as crucially important, because it helps “uncover the truth and make an impact.” With such a story, she triggered public discussion that helped lead — temporarily at least — to a change in the law in Pakistan.
She reported about three girls who were Hindu and forced to convert to Islam. Two were kidnapped, one was forced to go to a shrine, and all three ended up in sex slavery. “It was very sensitive to confess that Pakistan faces extremism in religion,” she said. “I personally first realized that I did a hard reporting.”
After her article was published, the reaction from readers was split. Some supported the effort, but others, which included her colleagues, accused her of damaging the image of the country. But the conflict drew the interest of the international media.
The government first denied the existence of forced religious conversion, but then passed a bill that banned the practice. “I felt like, ‘Oh my God, we did it!’” she said. “And I believe that it was the real power of journalism.” (Recently, however, the bill was put on hold for reconsideration)
After the discussion her story triggered, an Indian publisher offered to print a book with her writings on the topic over a three-year period.
Veengas’ next milestone is to expand hard-hitting digital journalism in Pakistan. She plans to launch a website, where she will be able to report on national issues in Sindhi and in English and will encourage other women to contribute.
“With the media, women have a chance to become decision-makers in a country with a man-dominated society,” she said.
In the United States, she plans to polish her skills, learn how to use more journalistic tools and improve her writing in English. She considers social media as one of the most powerful tools that can facilitate the job of a journalist. “If I’ll learn these (digital) tools better and bring them back, it might trigger a digital revolution in my province Sindh,” she said.
Veengas also enjoys learning about other cultures through the fellowship, including sensitive issues reported by female journalists in Kenya, Nepal, India and Ukraine.
“As a female, no matter what you do, you will face the problems,” she said. “But I haven’t lost my real taste in life – to reveal the truth.”