“The best thing we can do is empower ourselves”

Interview with Tanzila Khan

Tanzila Khan is a disability rights activist, author, motivational speaker and a change-maker in Pakistan.

Your tag on Facebook is @optimismexpert and you have a very positive personality. How important is optimism to you? How do you cultivate optimism within negative circumstances?

It takes a while to realise that optimism is the key to life, no matter what your circumstances are. We all face problems or end up in situations that can be difficult. With a disability, this becomes a daily narrative but my belief is that any situation can be achieved or escaped through optimism. Optimism comes from within and it attracts courage and patience.

You say you have a ‘will to be seen.’ As a disabled Muslim woman in Pakistan, has this been hard for you?
It is not hard to get noticed. As women, sometimes we can also get unwanted attention at times. As a disabled woman, I have seen eyeballs move and fix on me out of curiosity. But the question is what are you seeing? A disabled woman in a wheelchair or a confident woman who openly declares her association with Islam, and who has a purpose – and that’s why she has come outside her home? Achieving the latter is hard because people always want to follow the ‘charity model’. My will to be seen is through my own eyes and not those of charity.

Visibility and role models are important for women. Do you have any women you particularly admire or who inspire you?
I have really admired both of my grandmothers. My maternal grandmother was illiterate and she had ten children. She had great leadership skills: she managed a huge household, with servants and also dealt with matters in the village. It was refreshing to see the management skills she had without any training. It came from within her and she did a fine job. I never had the chance to meet my paternal grandmother, but I have heard she singlehandedly managed her property because she had no brother. She was a modern and liberal woman who knew she had a voice and a place at the table. Its time we looked back and saw how leadership has been expressed by women in many shapes and forms. We can’t limit leadership to just being a professional.

You wrote a novel about Mexico at 16 years of age. What drew you to Mexico and its culture?
At that age I really liked Antonio Banderas… and I found Mexico had a very colourful and rich culture. I wanted to weave a story through my own vision.

Your app Girlythings allows women and girls to order menstrual products to be delivered to their doors. Can you explain the need this addresses in Pakistan?

There are many barriers to a normal lifestyle for women. Especially when you have a disability. Menstruation is something that applies to all women, and yet we don’t have something as simple as access to products sorted. It’s like making eating food a disgraceful thing, hiding in corners three times a day. The app firstly delivers products to women at home, for those who face barriers reaching the open market. Those could be physical or cultural barriers. We also deliver Urgent Kits to women and deliver content through the App to provide authentic medical information on menstruation.

Tanzila Khan’s Girlythings app in the Google play store

You’ve developed a board game to help people understand about the importance of accessibility. What drew you to the board game format as a means for raising awareness?

I grew up playing board games because I could not take part in sports, so I learned game tactics, leadership and team work through boardgames. Its also a great tool to learn about culture and other concepts. Our game, A-Town teaches people about disability rights and how we can make places accessible with incentives, but for also for collective benefits.

You’ve argued that many current approaches to disability are disempowering. How can we create a new model?

Current approaches do not emphasize our dignity or sense of independence or respect, but these are important elements. Our self-esteem comes directly from how we operate in this world and sadly many existing models make the lives of people with disability more difficult. We need to create a combination of the existing models, and we need to make it flexible because disability is very open-ended and what is required varies from place to place and person to person. It is actually about customizing our approach to the requirements of the community and the people.

How do you personally deal with people’s prejudice and curiosity about your disability?

Initially, as a young person, I was curious about the people being curious about me. With time, I realised it has nothing to do with me. Anything out of the ordinary demands attention and in my case, I capitalise on it. For example, I now dress up in order to project my confidence, my Muslim identity and my female presence.

You’ve spoken out against victim narratives in talking about disability. How can we empower disabled people to reject that narrative?

We can’t empower anyone. The best thing we can do is empower ourselves, and present our narrative in such a way that it draws people to us and inspires change. I can never make a person sit down and then give them power. It has to come from within you. I can only inspire that. So as a disabled woman, I place myself in a way so that people can look at me and think more deeply about disability. That’s the first step.

Would you describe yourself as a feminist? What does feminism mean to you?
I am a feminist. My feminism is expressed through the gifts given to me by the Almighty. These are care, empathy, leadership and strength.

What are the main problems confronting women and people with disabilities in Pakistan?

People with disabilities are yet to be accepted in Pakistan. It will take a few decades to achieve that but we are on our way.

What projects are you planning now?
I am looking forward to taking the mobile app, Girlything to countries across the world and to launch the board game very soon.

To keep updated about Tanzila and her important work, she can be found on Twitter and Instagram: