2016 Lifetime Achiever Award
Qaisra has oﬀered outstanding services to Literature, education, women’s rights & interfaith relationships spanning 30 years. Her lifelong commitment to equality issues and celebration of diversity through her multiple careers is exemplary. Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Qaisra is a prize-winning and critically acclaimed novelist and scriptwriter. A truly global achiever, she has become an excellent global citizen who has used her literary work as a tool for intercultural dialogue with thousands of university students and school children around the world. Being a highly successful and achieving woman on an international scale, Qaisra was recognised as being one of 100 inﬂuential Pakistani women in Pakistan Power 100 List (2012). She is also a Director of Asia Paciﬁc Writers and Translators partnership. Qaisra has devoted her life to women’s rights and the impact she’s had is frankly quite phenomenal.
We spoke with Qaisra after she won the prestigious Lifetime Achiever Award at The National Diversity Awards 2016. Here is what she said…
What did you think of the other shortlisted nominees within your category?
Absolutely amazing people! I found all of them really inspiring people- fantastic role models. For me, the brilliant part of the evening was being in a room full of hundreds of inspirational nominees; all winners in their own rights; all having achieved in their particular field of work or interest. Nominees who are devoted to removing barriers for those who are marginalised in society, whilst celebrating their differences.
After winning the award, what is your next step?
Well obviously, I will continue with the various strands of my work; completing my latest novel as well as an international collection of short stories; championing interfaith relationships and gender and literacy issues. We are living in difficult times; it looks like I will be more active than ever! The award has provided me with further impetus, a marked drive to continue with all aspects of my work relating to celebrating diversity, and inclusion. Above all, to tackle hatred and discrimination in all forms, including anti-Muslim hatred, racism and anti-semitism, with initiatives like
‘We Stand Together’ and those promoting peace.
How do you think the work you do is making a difference and changing perceptions?
For the last 10 year’s I have been working really hard as a writer, educationist and peace activist in building cultural bridges, for example, with German ‘A’ level students and their teachers who are studying my short story- ‘A Pair of Jeans.’ to educate and raise awareness about Islam and ordinary peace abiding Muslim citizens. I have been promoting better relationships between the Muslim and the Jewish community as an active executive member of the Muslim Jewish Forum. When I travel to other places I make a point of visiting other places of worships out of respect and interest, for example, synagogues in Melbourne, Australia, in Kochin and Calcutta in India as well as Hindu temples in Bhera in Pakistan and Gurduwara in Lahore.
Through my role as Vice-Chair of Faith Network 4 Manchester, I have learnt so much about other faiths, beliefs and religious rituals. Through our national initiative ‘We Stand Together’ we aim to bring different faith and ethnic minority communities together in order to promote better relationships, tolerance and community cohesion. We are also doing the same with students at universities and schools with our interfaith ‘Twinning’ programmes, linked to New York ‘Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.’
I believe, I am making a difference and changing people’s perception through my active use of all forms of social media to celebrate our interfaith activities. For example, through my posts and pictures I aim to provide positive messages to the world, relating to celebration of diversity. Similarly, I am not afraid to challenge people, even my own friends where I deem it necessary, in tackling Islamophobia, and negative perceptions about other people, including Muslims.
I have been battling for Women’s rights since my teenage years. I want women to be literate, have access to quality education no matter where they are- whether in a remote village in the mountains anywhere in the world or in a city in the developed world. Above all, I want women to feel empowered, to be safeguarded from domestic violence, have the choice and freedom that I have and enjoy, to work. I want them to become confident decision makers where they have high self-esteem.
I’m really sensitive to the fact that partly I owe my success and achievements to the fact that I live in England, a developed country, where I have marvellous access to opportunities, a wonderful, supportive home and family background. My interest in women’s lives has led me to interview over 100 Muslim women from around world for 32 hours. What I have discovered is amazing; found out that every woman is unique, depending on their class, education, home background, where they lived and which generation they belonged to. So, I am always baffled as to why Muslim women are consistently and constantly stereotyped in the western media.
What has been your biggest challenge so far and how have you overcome these barriers faces?
I acknowledge that women in many countries around the world face far more barriers and challenges than myself. I have had an easier life than those women in other parts of the world. I have just come back from a women writers’ retreat in Peru. I recall a Peruvian woman making a 5 hour journey by foot with her goods to sell tied to her back and a young baby, down the mountains to eke out a living and then 5 hours going back home. Imagine 10 hours of walking to sell goods. The freedom and standard of life and opportunities we enjoy in Britain we take for granted.
The biggest barrier for me, as a Muslim has been Islamophobia. I am having to constantly battle with and deal with anti-Muslim hatred, especially against Muslim women. In the last two decades Muslim women have been scapegoated, constantly demonised in the media, harassed on the street for wearing a scarf; being bullied about what they can and can’t wear. It’s a nightmare. Totally abhorrent.
As a free woman, living in a modern, western democracy I believe I have the same rights as other citizens of Britain. It appears however that when it comes to Muslim women, the principles of equality are abandoned. I believe no one has the right to dictate to me how I should be dressed, whether to cover my body on a beach or not. I refer, of course, to the French, ‘Burkini’ fiasco where a Muslim woman was forced to remove her veil at a gun point. My novels, drama serials, social media posts constantly deal with varying issues relating to women’s lives. From patriarchal tyranny and the veil in ‘The Holy Woman’, to rape in ‘Typhoon’ and racism relating to mixed race marriage in ‘Revolt’ and cultural clashes in ‘A Pair of Jeans.’
In recent times, I find it so frustrating, having to constantly defend my faith, my rights as a British Muslim person. It’s so distressing and annoying, as it saps so much of my energy. To my German students I say, ‘ I am a Muslim, I love my faith but I am not a terrorist.’ I also feel so frustrated as all this takes me away from my writing. Furthermore, like any other sane minded person I am aghast at the murderous acts and extremist views of Daesh and their role in the radicalisation of vulnerable young people.
As a woman with various strands of work and relationships; as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, one of my biggest challenges in life has been the juggling of my different roles and responsibilities, whilst keeping family life at the heart of it all. I am constantly on the go. Luckily, I have a great stamina and am a good time manager. I feel so passionate about everything I do and can’t imagine life without the different strands of my work. All are equally important for me.
What has the reaction been from your family and supporters?
My family’s reaction was very positive indeed! I took my sister Farah to the award ceremony and we both had no real expectation of actually winning the award. She was so thrilled! She couldn’t believe it when she heard the first sentence uttered by the award presenters describing my work and knew instantly it was me. Within seconds she excitedly let her face book friends know in words that only young people know how to use. She excitedly took pictures and video recording just as I am walking up to the stage. I just wish my two sons were with me that day to share that special moment. You are just a family member for your family, so my sister had little inkling of the vast range of work I have undertaken in different fields over a period of time. That evening opened her eyes as to what her elder sister, ‘Baji’ did- she was so proud of me. I could see actual respect and awe in her eyes. That evening, I think, partly belonged to my sister. At home we had a little party with the whole extended family, with my sister being the enthusiastic arranger!
As for my supporters, those wonderful people who voted for me, wrote short testimonials about me – 99 people in total, as well as 10 marvellous people who gave me their precious time to produce short videos about my work from across the world, they were all delighted for me. The videos were from my wonderful friends; from Hong Kong ( Nury Vittachi), USA (Anora McGhaha, Walter Ruby), Australia (Jane Camens), India (Dr. Abdur Rahman Kidwai), France (Chris Sacarabany), Germany (Dr. Karen Vogt) and the UK (Dr. Mohammed Ali, Alia Ali, Umer Khan).
You are an inspiration to so many, but who or what was your inspiration?
In terms of writing, I got my inspiration from Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and George Eliot; I love all their work. They inspired me. Thomas Hardy’s depiction of rural life in his novels, is reminiscent of my own love affair with rural life in Pakistan, which I affectionately delineate, in my literary work. I have been described by one person, affectionately as ‘a Pakistani Jane Austen.’
My father has been an inspiration for me; he has kept me and my four siblings, all of whom are highly successful in their field of work, focused. He encouraged us to succeed in our academic and professional lives. My beloved mother Amina, who was actually my soul mate, and a wonderful friend, was an inspiration for me too; an excellent role model as a woman, wife, mother, home maker, decision maker. I learnt so from her; much wisdom about life; vast knowledge about human relationships and many skills, including cooking. She taught me the value and the difference between gaining academic degrees and the benefits of gaining human wisdom as a person.
I am very sensitive to the inequalities relating to women from around the world. These inequalities have really inspired me in my literature. I often say when describing the vast range of women’s live’ experiences and circumstances ‘’One woman’s ability to write her name for the first time, is equivalent to another woman’s PhD.’’ It’s the context, the achievement of progress.
I also take inspiration from life, from my travels. As a writer, the Peruvian life from a recent trip has spurred me on to pen a story set in 16th century Peru. The first scene was written, sitting on the top summit of Macchu Picchu, one of the seven wonders of the world.
What were your thoughts on the awards? Did you enjoy the night?
It was just a fantastic evening all round. The National Diversity Awards is indeed phenomenal! The awards offer a breadth of fresh air, with a resounding message, to all those bent on dividing us- that we are standing together, united, in celebrating diversity. I am delighted to have met the amazing, wonderful man, Paul Sesay, the founder and CEO and his incredible NDA team, Emma, Hayley, Freya, Tiegan and Terrence. I truly admire them who work around the year dedicated to discovering the fantastic work of thousands of individuals and charities across the UK, who are devoted to equality and diversity.
It was wonderful to meet the two presenters, Richard Blackwood and gorgeous newscaster, Charlene White in her beautiful green gown. Lovely to receive my award from Sol Campbell, the famous footballer.
It was a thrilling experience to be part of an incredible event in the gorgeous surroundings of Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, which brilliantly showcased and celebrated the marvelous work of hundreds of unsung heroes, amazing companies and charities across the UK.
When I received my award, I was unable to gush like some other winners. I was just my normal self. Can you believe I? I did not have an acceptance speech ready! It was actually cobbled together on the stage, however, I managed to say what I wanted to say.