Introducing the Zubeida Mustafa Award for Journalistic Excellence

By Kelly Kavanaugh

March 26, 2013 — Zubeida Mustafa is one of the most well-known women journalists in Pakistan who throughout her 33 years working at the English-language newspaper Dawn and in the field of journalism not only wrote on topics that others were afraid to cover but also fought furiously for the rights and role of women in a field that was so strongly dictated and controlled by men. For that, the IWMF honored her with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

Recently, Dawn announced the induction of the Zubeida Mustafa Award for Journalistic Excellence, a prestigious honor to be awarded every year to one of Pakistan’s women journalists who is held to have “rendered matchless services to the body of public knowledge about the issues facing Pakistan.”

The award itself is aimed at encouraging women news reporters to write with passion, commitment, and most importantly, courage – all attributes that Mustafa was well known for in her writing career. Dawn described the aim of the award as to “honor women writers and reporters who have, under difficult circumstances, sometimes at risk to themselves, shown strength and integrity in discharging their professional obligations.”

Three judges will exist on the award panel, all of them well-known in Pakistan. They include: Zohra Yusuf, Chairperson for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP); Tahira Abdullah, economic development researcher, author, peace activist and a human rights defender; and Tausif Ahmed Khan, Chairman of the Department of Mass Communication, Federal Urdu University.

Yusuf, for example, is a graduate from the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, has worked as an editor of The Star (a publication of the Dawn group) and has held other elected and voluntary positions in the HRCP as well as other rights-based organizations, such as South Asians for Human Rights, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, and Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development. She commented on the induction of the award by saying that it should, “inspire younger women journalists.” Yusuf also thought the award should remind women journalists of the broad assortment of articles that Mustafa represents.

“It should be noted that Ms. Mustafa has written on a wide range of subjects- political, economic and social issues, education, health, etc., and not only on women’s issues,” urging all women to try to step outside their boundaries and express thoughts on topics such as economics, politics, and health like Mustafa so strongly did.

“Courage, bravery, and originality or freshness of approach to ongoing issues,” are a few attributes that panel member Abdullah will be specifically looking for, as well as a woman, “standing up for herself in a male-dominated profession” and one that is “not afraid of confronting wrong vs. right.”

Notable awards won by Mustafa herself include the Global Media Award for Excellence in 1986 and 2004 presented by the Population Institute, Washington, USA, the 2012 IWMF Lifetime Achievement Award, and recently the UKS Lifetime Achievement Award, which was given out this March of 2013.

Mustafa commented on the effect that winning the 2012 IWMF Lifetime Achievement Award had on her career, in particular. “I find that the IWMF’s award has brought me the greatest accolades,” Mustafa said. “It is probably because the IWMF has a standing of its own and so many senior and outstanding journalists are connected with it that made everyone sit up and take notice when I was nominated for it.”

Though she may be a numerous award winner and famous in the field of journalism, Mustafa is anything but boastful when she talks about herself. She said that she at no point has “chased” awards or ever written to receive fame. This fact is clearly evident not only by her easy-going and down to earth demeanor but also by her words, which speak with trust and honesty. Women journalists in Pakistan today will very much be “stepping in the sandals” of Mustafa as they strive to report news, stories, and human rights issues that are still just as raw and important to draw attention to as the one’s Mustafa covered in the prime of her career.

Although times have changed significantly as far as the role that women play in Pakistan as journalists— who are now being accepted as writers, and having a significant amount more of young women in journalism schools, etc.— worldly issues of social, political, and human rights are of timely importance.

“Last night a very dear friend of mine – a development worker – was shot dead. There is anarchy in the city with ten to fifteen people being killed every day.” Mustafa told the IWMF on March 14 and continued with the concrete statement that, “This issue needs to be taken up concertedly by the media.”

Parveen Rahman, the developmental worker who Mustafa was referring to, was close to many peace activists and human rights defenders in Pakistan, including judge panel member Tahira Abdullah who was also devastated by the shocking the news. Abdullah called it “an irreplaceable national loss,” and said that it “goes beyond Pakistan too,” in her recent tribute to Rahman that Abdullah published shortly after hearing of her friend and fellow worker’s death.

Without a doubt, this example of targeted violence aimed at a voice speaking on topics defending human rights and civil liberties is just the reason why the induction of such an award is needed at this time in Pakistan.

Change, peace, and justice — all things that Mustafa fought for during her career, are issues that she hopes future women journalists in Pakistan and around the world focus on. “I hope that the new generation of women reporters remember the values my generation stood for,” Mustafa said before continuing, “accuracy, integrity, and fairness in reporting.”

Mustafa also hopes that her teachings and mentoring will be put to good use. As for the exact number of younger women reporters Mustafa has mentored in her lifetime, the world may never know. What is known for certain is the immense “ripple affect” that Zubeida’s teachings would have (and continue to have) on her younger female colleagues as well as women news reporters in Pakistan. “I never kept a count,” Mustafa remarked. “More importantly I didn’t realize I was mentoring my younger colleagues. I saw them as friends who taught me a lot.”

Mustafa is a prime example of the reason why teachers and mentors are so critically important to the development of our societies. Mustafa herself explained that she actually had no female role model to guide her in her profession when she first started journalism, and for that reason she has always felt driven to help others. “Young women journalists do not have many role models before them. After all, one is not taught about human dealings in journalism schools,” Mustafa said.

Born in British India, Mustafa herself moved to Pakistan with her family in 1947. Although the country was in what Mustafa called, “a period of transition,” Mustafa was lucky enough to have parents that were both liberal and generous, allowing her and her siblings – three sisters and one brother – to never feel “restricted in any way.” She described her upbringing by saying that, “My parents liberal approach to their girls’ upbringing and their emphasis on intellectual development made all the difference for me.”

Her father, in particular, gave additional confidence to Mustafa at a young age, impacting her ability to express her thoughts and opinions on public matters. “My father would take a lot of interest in our intellectual growth and I felt I could enter into discussions with him on an equal footing. I think that impacted by professional choices.”

Although she is “officially retired”, Mustafa plans on writing for the media as long as time will let her, though she admits it will be at a much slower pace. Along with contributing a weekly article, Mustafa has recently completed her second book, entitled The SIUT Story: Making the ‘Impossible’ Possible which focuses on the documentation of the work of a hospital called The Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation, and its founder, Dr. Adibul Hasan Rizvi — a place full of what Mustafa describes as, “people-centered and full of humanism and compassion.”

Mustafa is also working towards completing the second revised and expanded edition of her language book called Tyranny of Language in Education: The Problem and its Solution. Although many have suggested Mustafa should write her memoirs, she has not yet come to a decision on that matter.

As for advice, young females need to look no further than the name and face that represents the Zubeida Mustafa Award for Journalistic Excellence. Mustafa remarked, “My advice to all women is: Keep your chin up. Have confidence in yourself and act fearlessly with dignity. You will find you can negotiate your way out of the most difficult of crises without compromising.”

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Mustafa with Dawn’s editorial board in the 1970’s

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Mustafa with Noam Chomsky, 2001

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Mustafa live on CNN with Suzanne Malveaux
(click to watch video clip)

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Mustafa with Maria Shriver in LA, 2012
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Mustafa with Judy Woodruff in NY, 2012