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Q&A: Zayer Hassan, Tackling Women’s Issues in Pakistan

Q&A: Zayer Hassan, Tackling Women’s Issues in Pakistan
Zayer Hassan shoots a documentary film during the 2011 floods in Sukkur, Pakistan.

Zayer Hassan is an Iranian-Pakistani video journalist and documentary filmmaker, who works between China and Pakistan.

Although he covers a variety of topics, he recently worked on two stories about women’s issues in Pakistan: for TIME and MSNBC. The first was about a female lawyer who is helping women fight online harassment. The second piece focused on Pakistan’s first female taxi driver.

Storyhunter: How did you come across these stories?

Zayer Hassan: For the TIME video, I was introduced to the activist Nighat Dad by the commissioning editor.

For the MSNBC story, it started back in 2010. I was waiting for my turn at the airport taxi stand in Islamabad when something different happened. As soon as I jumped into the cab, I found out that the driver was a woman. I was so surprised. On the ride home, we had an amazing conversation and I realized that she could be a great character. I decided that I was going to make a film about her one day.

SH: Why is it so surprising that a woman would drive a cab in Pakistan? How are women treated differently than men in Pakistani society?

ZH: Driving cabs is considered a male job only, as it’s a tough job in a country like Pakistan. Most of the people who use cabs are middle class, and they think women should only stay at home. It’s a kind of taboo.

SH: Do you think this reality is changing?

ZH: Women are treated differently in Pakistan “in the name of Islam”. This is a misinterpretation of Islamic law, where women are not treated justly, whereas in actuality, Islam defends treating both men and women equally. Places that have low literacy rates where Islamic laws are followed are usually where women are treated differently. I have worked extensively in northern provinces of Pakistan which share a border with Afghanistan. During my travels there, I have seen and noticed that women are treated as alien creatures and in my view are not given their just rights. Unless we improve our education system, things will remain the same.

Zayer’s piece for MSNBC.

SH: You have shots of Zahida that we taken from the hood of the car. That sounds dangerous! But I guess you know how to tie a good knot?

ZH: It was not as dangerous as it is to film on the front line of war zones. We used this tiny rope which could hardly hold me but I took this risk to get on the hood and film the frontal scene. At one point I thought it was the last shot I would ever take. Thankfully, Zahida stopped the car and I got off.

SH: You obviously feel strongly about women’s issues in your own country.

ZH: There is always a huge satisfaction to see my work published in a large media outlet. The work I did for TIME via Storyhunter went viral on Pakistani local news channels. They interviewed Nighat Dad, the lawyer, on prime time television and played the video repeatedly. It’s a big deal when TIME covers a story from any part of the world, and the news channels here were pretty happy.

SH: Will seeing the story published actually change the reality on the ground?

ZH: Most of the Pakistani population don’t have access to Internet or international channels. All of the work I do is published in international TV channels, magazines or websites that most of the population doesn’t have the access to. So I doubt any changes take place on ground because of my work in Pakistan. But I have seen my work go viral among Pakistanis who are overseas, and share the stories on Facebook, vimeo, and other channels.

SH: Your assignment for TIME had very quick turnaround.

ZH: I was only hired for one day to shoot the entire story. I traveled the day before to Lahore. I started work early the next morning. My character arrived from the UK at 10 in the morning. So she was tired as well. Then we had four different locations where we had to film all the sequences of the film. Making something good in one day is always a challenge but I’m glad TIME liked it.

Zayer’s piece for TIME.

SH: What is it like being a freelance journalist in Pakistan?

ZH: Being a journalist in Pakistan is like riding a roller coaster. At any time, anything can happen. But it’s also the easiest place for journalists if you have the right contacts and you know the right people.

Zayer Hassan’s clients include Nat Geo, VICE, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and TIME.