Today on New American Voices we invite you to listen to another in our occasional series of profiles of the men and women from many countries who work as international radio broadcasters here at the Voice of America. We introduce Nafisa Hoodbhoy – journalist, writer, professor and feminist, one of the 25 staff members of VOA’s Urdu Service.
Growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, Nafisa Hoodbhoy knew early on what she wanted to do with her life.
“I always wanted to be a journalist, there was no doubt in my mind that that’s what I wanted to be. I wanted to travel, meet people, have interesting experiences, and at an early age, I think I was 16, I started to write a column for our English-language newspaper ‘Dawn’.”
The column was about the experiences of Pakistani women trying to make their way in various professions.
“Because that was something I was very interested in, looking at how women were fighting the odds in a Muslim society and trying to get into the professions.”
These two interests, journalism and women’s issues, have been constant, interwoven strands in Nafisa Hoodbhoy’s life. She first came to the United States as a young woman in 1979 to study for a Masters’ degree in history at Northeastern University in Boston, where she also took courses in journalism. Part of her reason for coming was to expand the horizons that she felt were limited to her, as a woman, in Pakistan.
“Well, America has always been presented as the land of opportunity, you know, the opportunity to grow, and a sense of freedom that I really didn’t experience in Pakistan. Because here there isn’t the sense of discrimination, that if you’re a woman, you have to follow the path laid down by your mothers. And this newness really attracted me, I think coming to America was a great experience, because it really enabled me to grow as a person, and to meet different kinds of people and to learn from their experiences.”
Her first job after receiving her M.A. was as a reporter for The Guardian, a small, independent newspaper in New York City. It was 1981, and feminism was coming into its own in America.
“I was allowed to cover the women’s movement in the U.S., so that was really interesting for me. And there were so many comparisons that I could make between the women’s movement in Pakistan, you know, which is very small, compared to the women’s movement in this country. It was such an inspiration for me, that women could be so powerful, so vocal, so involved. Very inspiring, I must say.”
After six years in the United States, Nafisa Hoodbhoy decided to return to Pakistan and continue her journalistic career there. The prominent English-language newspaper Dawn hired her as a staff reporter.
“I was able to cover politics, the situation in Pakistan, which I found fascinating, as a reporter, because I was covering politics, crime – there’s a great deal of crime linked with politics in Pakistan. I was the only woman reporter on my newspaper for a long time. It was a fascinating career.”
While becoming a leading political reporter, Ms Hoodbhoy was actively involved in the women’s movement, primarily in trying to repeal laws discriminating against women. She worked closely with women’s groups and wrote extensively on women’s issues. Then, in 2001 she received a Ford Foundation fellowship to teach a course on the impact of Islamic fundamentalism on women in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan at Amherst University in the northern state of Massachusetts, and returned to the United States. A year later she joined the University of Massachusetts as a visiting professor in the women’s studies department. At the same time she continued to do free-lance reporting for National Public Radio, usually on topics dealing with women, Islam, South Asia, and human rights. But she says she missed the immediate connection with events in Pakistan that had been such a large part of her professional life. So last year, when the Voice of America announced that it was expanding its Urdu Service programming and hiring additional staff, Ms Hoodbhoy jumped at the chance.
“The Urdu service has existed for a long time, but the point was to make listening more attractive to a broader audience. So a lot more younger people were hired, just so that they could get more new programming. So we are the new people, the new face, let’s say.”
As part of this initiative, VOA’s Urdu-language programs, now called Aap Ki Dunyaa, or Your World, expanded from three hours to twelve. They featured increased coverage of regional South Asian events, roundtable discussions and call-in programs, and a mix of Pakistani, Indian and Western music. Voice of America also began broadcasting two hours daily of the Urdu programs on a country-wide FM network, which greatly enhanced their signal and reach. Nafisa Hoodbhoy believes that Aap Ki Dunyya has an important role to play, particularly in telling the Pakistani audience about the values America embodies.
“I think it’s the freedom to have dissenting opinions in this country, to have a critical approach to life, and to believe in certain values, such a democracy, and the freedom of expression. I hope we can appeal to different layers of the community, to give them both information as well as ideas about this society. That it’s not a monolithic society, that there are so many beautiful values in this society that need to be cherished. And that’s the most fundamental thing, I think, that I can to personally.”
Nafisa Hoodbhoy is also writing a book, due to be published next year, in which she introduces American readers to Pakistan through her personal journey as a woman reporter.