“I’ve read a lot of research and interacted with people who are working in this field I’ve realized that in Canada, on the surface it seems that everything is good but there are still systemic barriers and issues that girls and young women face that makes it an unequal playing field for them.”
Saman Ahsan grew up in Lahore Pakistan in a liberal and educated family. She went to McGill to do her undergrad in Anthropology and her Masters in Development inLondon at theSchool ofOrient and African Studies. She has worked at the World Economic Forum inGeneva and at The Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. She got her immigration toCanada last year and returned toMontreal last May, and in December joined Girls Action Foundation. In spite of her extensive work in not-for-profit sector, she was unable to land a job initially. However, volunteering at various places kept her motivated and finally she landed herself with a position as an Executive Director of Girls Action Foundation (GAF). The organization she worked with inPakistan was initially funded by the government ofCanada through CIDA. At the time CIDA only funded organizations that launched pilot projects.
She speaks to Generation Next about her dreams and aspirations.
Your family was liberal but how were you exposed to gender discrimination?
The liberal family is just a cocoon, you step put on the streets, you meet other people and you realize they don’t have the same support and opportunities that you have. So many of my friends were not allowed to go anywhere except for school. You go out on the street you see women being harassed and you see that it’s not a safe environment for women and I was in a family that was very socially and politically active so I met people from all walks of life.
Do you think Pakistani government has done enough to prohibit gender discrimination?
I think the government has been trying but having policies does not always translate into practice. So I think really when there is a concerted effort at all levels, will gender discrimination be reduced or eliminated.
Why did you decide to come to Canada?
I really loved Montreal and I really like Canadian values and Canadian people are some of the best people I’ve met.
How has been your job search and volunteer experience here?
The volunteer experience was excellent – If I had just come and applied for jobs, the job search was frustrating because you come to Canada and most organizations want you to have Canadian experience. So initially it was frustrating but I kept myself happy doing volunteer work that was so rewarding because the organizations really valued me.
Tell us about Girls Action Foundation.
It was started in 1995 as a summer camp for young girls to give them the opportunity to exchange experiences, share and learn from each other and it also had a mandate of bringing together other organizations that work for girls and women. Today we have over 300 organizations that are a member of our network and they are in all provinces and territories inCanada. So what we do is we inspire girls to take action in their community, develop their leadership skills, give them support and resources to implement small projects in their communities and at the same time, we work with other organizations that support girls programs in their communities.
Are you a feminist?
Yes, definitely. Men and women should have equal opportunity that boys and girls should be cherished equally and there shouldn’t be any discrimination between them.
Do you find gender discrimination of a different nature in Canada?
That’s what I’ve realized since I started working here. Earlier I didn’t think there was that much discrimination. Since I’ve started working in this field, I’ve read a lot of research and interacted with people who are working in this field, and I’ve realized that on the surface it seems that everything is good but there are still systemic barriers and issues that girls and young women face that makes it an unequal playing field for them.
Do you think in Canada the South Asian community is a collective community?
To be honest, even back home I don’t think there is any problem between the people of the two countries because I’ve travelled to India and Sri Lanka and I’ve found nothing but warmth and hospitality and love. At the level of the people at least, there is that familiarity and sense that we are one. I think that it’s more at the bureaucratic and government level that we haven’t been able to put that into practice. Over here, also the communities gel together.
When we speak of gender discrimination, people always point out that Indian has elected a female Prime Minister, Bangladesh has done it and so did Pakistan, yet here in North America where we talk so much of gender equality, people have yet to elect a female to the highest office.
Having a female at the head of government is really inspiring for women in the country because they feel its something they can relate to and aspire to work as. But just that on its own cannot reverse gender discrimination and inequality- it has to be at every level.
There’s a feeling Pakistani women are most submissive among South Asians.
That’s interesting. Women inPakistanhave changed. If you look at the older generation, especially women who immigrated toCanadaand other countries, they were probably more submissive. But I have seen there has been a huge change in the women ofPakistanof at least my generation and the younger generation, they are not as submissive. They know their rights, they are assertive. I feel that inPakistanthe change has come in women and the men haven’t changed in the same way, so I think that’s the next thing that needs to be changed. Men should also recognize that women have rights.
How do you view issues such as honour killings?
If there is a discussion it means that it is being talked about and when you talk about something there will always be different points of view, so you cant expect everyone to have the same point of view. You might not agree with some of them but the fact that they are talking about it also shows that there is that openness.