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Breaking the mould: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

  • Posted On: 27th May 2013
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Breaking the mould: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Meeting Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy last week, was like meeting life itself – or a force larger than life. Sharmeen’s powerful presence comes not from her credentials or material possessions, but from her conviction and passion for the cause for which she fights. She feels a strong sense of responsibility to her country and society. However, Sharmeen is no dreamer and her ambitious future visions are based on practical experience, determination – and excellent management and communication skills. An international award-winning journalist and documentary film maker, and the first Pakistani woman to be nominated for an Emmy, Sharmeen is remarkably down-to-earth and hands-on. I think the greatest insight I gained on Sharmeen was through the Indus Valley School of Art students and faculty who worked with her on putting together the Mohatta Palace Exhibition called “Birth of a Nation”: they described their experience of working with her and the CAP team as enlightening, fun-filled and democratic. My own experience with her was similar.    Even as I sat with Sharmeen to interview her, she gave me precise yet awe-inspiring answers, all at the same time as discussing future projects and synergies and intermittently giving instructions and obtaining feedback from CAP staff passing us. She recently had a baby daughter, yet she has continued with her work at the same time as adjusting to a new life style. She acknowledges the support of her family, husband and in-laws in being able to maintain this structure in her life.
Sharmeen was born and raised in Karachi. She studied at Karachi Grammar School and did a stint at Greenwich, prior to leaving for the US, where she obtained a degree in Economics and Government from Smith College. After this she completed a double Masters at Stanford University in International Policy Studies and Communication. She has been a journalist since she was 14, and has been making documentary films since 2001. Her first three films were made while she was at college and were funded by the New York Times. To date she has made 14 films; these films have been shot in some of the most dangerous, controversial or war-torn locations of the world, from Afghanistan and Iraq to South Africa, and provide a voice for the otherwise forgotten segments of the population: women, children, the handicapped, persecuted and poor. Her movies and investigative journalistic documentaries are made with an underlying aim to create positive change, and have won several international awards. Speaking of her daring feats when making powerful documentaries such as “Unveiling Afghanistan”, she says; “If you tell the truth, you will get a wider scale reaction. People will try and make a difference”.

Sharmeen’s ventures around the world have made her appreciate the qualities of her own country (for example, visiting countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have made her appreciate the more liberated state of women in Pakistan). It has also made her more determined to prevent her own country from falling into such a condition and to “do her bit”. CAP was created in 2007, after a conversation with a friend from overseas, who lamented that there are no efforts being made in Pakistan to preserve history. Not one to sit and complain or point fingers, Sharmeen rallied a team of talented and patriotic professionals under the platform of Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP). Since 2007, CAP has been increasing its range of projects and ideas in the visual arts and education sector and “there is no turning back”. What differentiates this non-profit organization is its focus on delivery and immediate impact. As Sharmeen says: “We are a team of young, motivated individuals, taking out time from businesses and careers. We want to see the results quickly”. However, discussing the work of CAP in the field of education, she says very practically: “There is space for everyone to exist. People are not competing with each other. Any effort will make a positive difference in numbers”. Discussing her ideas on education, Sharmeen notes that the hunger to learn and develop critical thinking exists among the general public, not just the minority elite, on whom the better educational system has so far focused. Currently CAP is focusing on providing good quality, interactive and objective information to the public through various platforms, such as exhibitions, art and class-room learning. In fact Sharmeen states that it is the reaction she has received from the public, especially lower income groups, to projects such as Shanaakht and the Outreach tour, which have given her the push to expand.

Her message to the youth is that if they want to live in Pakistan, they should try to make it “the best place in the world to live in” for themselves and their children. She says: “We need to give back to the country rather than only complaining about it”. When asked if she has any message for the youth of Pakistan, especially young women she says: “Never take no for an answer. Bang on the door, kick it open. It will happen. There may be pre-defined roles for women in this society, but you need to break the mould to succeed”. By simultaneously taking on the role of international film-maker, CEO of a non-profit organization, mother, wife and daughter, Sharmeen has proved that such stereo-types can be broken. When I asked Sharmeen what makes her tick and remain afloat in her busy schedule, she said that it was all the people in her office at CAP, who could be working in the industry earning much more, but had chosen to come and volunteer at CAP.  She remembers the resilience and defiance of women she met in war-torn Afghanistan and believes that it is women like that too which have made her realize that there is something worth fighting for. “Find the silver lining in every disaster”, she says. “Do right by the people and try and reverse the damage of the last 63 years.”

Sharing the past… and preparing for the future

“Birth of Pakistan”, an exhibition at the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi.

The highly successful exhibition at the Mohatta Palace has been visited by 135 schools, from various parts of Karachi and 9000 students since its opening in March. Adults are charged a very nominal fee to visit the exhibition, while students are allowed free entrance. Students are encouraged to participate in the interactive games, and given souvenirs such as the first passport and early newspaper samples. Not only were students the targeted recipients of this exhibition, they were also involved in its implementation. The team at CAP worked closely with students and teachers from various departments at the Indus Valley School of Art and Karachi University for over three months, to bring to life the history and the socio-economic set up of the 1940’s and 1950’s in a unique manner. Engro Corp. kindly agreed to provide the funding required for the construction of props and purchase of materials and audio-visual equipment.

The impact of an exhibition such as “Birth of Pakistan” has several dimensions. It was a learning process for spectators – as well as the teams of academics who curated the exhibition. Not only did CAP’s own archives provide a rich source of information on partition, several of the student curators met with people who lived through partition, to gain first-hand accounts and a deeper insight. One student of Indus Valley recalls; “It was amazing to see things come to life and get responses from students who visited the exhibition”. Another teacher comments on how this exhibition is “a step in a positive direction”; it “takes people away from negativity and channels their energies into actually doing something constructive”. CAP is also paving the way for the future. By involving students in their history, and making them aware of the enormous sacrifices that went into creating Pakistan, it is creating a pool of aware, sensitive and motivated youth. Recent floods in the country evoked a similar spirit of volunteerism and shared empathy from students and people throughout the country, who did their personal best to help relief efforts.

In the future, CAP is looking forward to leveraging off its experiences and floating new ideas. It plans to establish an on-line history syllabus for schools, expand its Outreach program of interactive workshops to reach 1000 students in six low-income schools and expand its Oral History project to work as a cultural exchange with schools in India. Furthermore, it also plans to document the minorities of Punjab and organize its next Shanaakht festival in 2011. Two of its projects, the Exchange Project and Documentation of minorities of Punjab, will be piloted in September and October 2010.

About CAP (Citizens Archive of Pakistan)

Citizens Archive Pakistan (CAP) is a voluntary non-profit organization. It was formed in 2007 as a society registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1960, as the first ever youth led private initiative to collect, archive, study, disseminate and exhibit all aspects of Pakistan’s history – both before and after partition. CAP’s board includes a lawyer, photographer, architect, educationist, artist, advertising expert and members of the media. The President of the board is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, an award-winning journalist and documentary maker. Through its work in the field of culture, visual art and education, CAP is playing a value-added role in creating national awareness and identity – and so far, has proved to be a successful model of a small, focused, dynamic, voluntary-based enterprise.

CAP has three main areas of work: the Shanaakht festival (a regular three-day interactive cultural festival in Karachi, which was visited by over 5000 viewers a day in 2009), the Oral History project (which captures Pakistan’s history through eye-witness accounts of those people from all strata’s of society who were part of it and was used as a base for the recent history exhibition in Mohatta Palace) and the School Outreach program (which offers interactive history workshops to schools throughout the country). In the last three years since its inception, CAP has hosted three Shanaakht festivals, displayed an interactive exhibition at the Mohatta Palace from March 2010 onwards and provided interactive history workshops to 800 students in 5 schools.  CAP has digitized more than 40,000 historic photographs from private and public collections to date, and their collection is open to researchers, students and universities. CAP also runs a summer internship progam in which 100 youth have been recruited since 2007, to participate in recording interviews and archiving photographs, maps and other historic material.

As Amean J, a photographer and board member of CAP comments, the focus of the team is on “doing something” rather than complaining. “You have to know and understand your past to build the future. We have to preserve and document our history while we still have time. We are so disconnected from our past; yet it is important that we know where we come from and gain inspiration from our past heroes”.

Since its inception, whatever this group of young professionals lacked in financial resources and time, they have more than made up through their hard-work, creativity, team-effort and management skills.  Moreover, this team has very successfully harnessed the creative energy of other youth in the country.

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