When asked about a woman who has influenced her upbringing, Mishal answered her maternal grandmother, Zeenat Beguam.
Zeenat was born in the 1930s in Pakistan. Today, female literacy rates in Pakistan remain below 50%, but when Zeenat was a teenager, women’s literacy rates in Pakistan hovered around a mere 12%. However, for Zeenat, education was a source of empowerment and independence. Despite the protest of many family members and neighbors, Zeenat pursued her education. As a young girl, villagers often stopped Zeenat’s rickshaw as she attempted to head into the city for school. Zeenat never let this stop her, as she not only completed her education but went on to become a teacher and eventually a headmistress at an all-girls school in Pakistan. Zeenat’s perseverance and love of learning have been passed down through generations of strong women, with two of her daughters growing up to become teachers themselves.
Zeenat taught Mishal that women could be strong, independent, and successful. While Zeenat raised her daughters to value education as much as she did, most families in Pakistan still do not see the value in educating their daughters. The love of learning that Zeenat instilled in Mishal allowed her to become the first attorney – male or female – on her father’s side of the family. Zeenat taught Mishal that being the first is okay, even if the journey is uncomfortable.
When asked why Zeenat is an inspiring woman to Mishal, she said, “My grandmother was always my champion. She was always in my corner, cheering me on whenever I struggled. My grandmother is the person who helped me gain the confidence to go after my dreams.
Roughly translated, something my grandmother would say often is that “people can take a lot of things from you in life, but what they can never take away is your education.”
Zeenat’s story is the epitome of women’s empowerment. She grew up in a time, and a place where being a woman genuinely meant being a second-class citizen in life. But Zeenat never let this stop her. She devoted her life to empowering young girls through education, including her daughters and granddaughters. Zeenat’s courage and strength have impacted the lives of countless women for generations to come. While much work remains to be done, Zeenat played an active role in increasing the literacy rates for Pakistani girls throughout her lifetime.