Naeema Butt: Acting Out to Bring Change Within

Naeema Butt has never let discrimination stand in her way of becoming a star, whether it’s on the soccer field or on the acting stage. In her story she shares why she has never backed down and her message to others to stand up for their rights and do the same.

I am like many other young women in Pakistan who are outspoken, intelligent, brave and hold a strong opinion. The only difference between me and those women is my determination to never, ever give up and lead from the front. As a child, I always kept on fighting for the things I loved, such as sports, which were discouraged by my family and our country’s culture. I was always the girl participating in drama, sports, debates and many other extracurricular activities.

Since my childhood, I’ve wanted to do something different for my country, and I’ve always wanted to explore new opportunities. I got selected from an all-school soccer competition to join the first ever provincial team of Punjab. No one believed me, not even my friends and family, when I told them I was selected to play in the national championship. And even when they did, they continued to discourage me, saying this wasn’t good for my body, especially since I am a girl. But there was a time when the final match was broadcasted on Pakistani TV channels, and I was playing in the women’s Punjab team, and I won my first gold medal. Now, suddenly everyone started taking me seriously. But that was just the start of my journey.

I always used to see how people would harass and beat women up. I saw it firsthand through my own incidents and was surprised that, more than physical abuse, I was psychologically harassed by society, by the gaze of men, who questioned my existence. It was so difficult to go out of my house, to the street, where random men would stare at me. Then I’d reach school where boys would pass comments and make fun of me. Later I’d come back home to a house filled with expectations of me to get married or sit at home, only to go to a job later where every other guy thought of me as a piece of meat. Through these experiences I figured out that there’s a lot of work to be done for women like me.

I jumped into media studies and got a scholarship to come to the U.S. as a cultural exchange ambassador of Pakistan to study one semester at West Liberty University in West Virginia. I was the first female from my family to do this, without any support. In the U.S. I studied theater and got a chance to act in the play, “The Crucible.” When I came back to Pakistan, I continued to do theater and participated in competitions, where I represented my Pakistani university and won a number of awards. Suddenly I knew the power of theater.

I got my professional training to become a theatre of the oppressed facilitator from the Mandala Center for Change in Washington and started replicating interactive theater work in my country. People discovered my talent but still never wanted to support me because to them, I was too bold. And a girl. But today I have my own interactive theater group called Pehlaaj, and I work for the oppressed communities in Pakistan. I hear their stories and then act it out in front of them and invite them to intervene in the play, bring up solutions to the issues and change the situation. Themes include education, human rights, women empowerment, corruption, child abuse and others.

With extremism and terrorism in rise every passing day, humanity is in crisis. Therefore, more than ever before, we need to bring peace, justice and integrity to transform our society for a better, more peaceful tomorrow. Being a theater activist, I strongly believe that interactive theater is the best tool to empower those who want to bring about a peaceful revolution.

My strategy is to create an environment where people can express themselves without discrimination, prejudice or fear. It comes through a range of activities including theater, social engagements, various forum and small scale performances. We perform to bring peace, justice and equality, in accordance with the UN objective, and we can see the change simmering through the folds of society and acceptability making its way. Our recent performance was a Tell-Your-Story feature, we called it “Transgenders,” based on a segment of society harshly looked down upon in Pakistan. It was followed by liberals, who are young and dynamic but are choked by social and religious barriers. The first two performances went so well, that there is now a level of acceptance. I am working towards a large scale project, which will focus on how young women have played and will play a role in de-radicalization of the society and countering political violence.

Because of my passion for social change and courage to take a stand, I got selected to become president of the World Merit Pakistan Country council. World Merit’s focus is to promote young leaders and social entrepreneurship. I was also invited to attend the Nexus Global summit in 2015, representing Pakistan, and in 2016 I volunteered for the summit’s management team. I am also working as an accountrapreneur at the Accountability Lab in Washington DC under their Pakistan Chapter, am general secretary of Pakistan-U.S. Alumni Network, Lahore Chapter, former head of extracurricular activities at Information Technology University Punjab, a AMNAMBASSADOR (Peace Ambassador) for Peace without Borders, youth peace ambassador in International Human Rights Commission and part of volunteer task force group in UN Women. I was recently invited to speak at the UN women’s event “invest in young women leadership” on World Youth Day at the UN headquarters, where I shared my story and inspired the people. I am also in working task force group of UN women representing Pakistani women.

Through all of my work, I always follow the basic principle “never give up,” and that is the most important principle a lot of today’s generation fails to follow. Every time I was made to face a challenge, either pressure to get married by family or bad comments from conservative men, I asked myself what kind of an example I would set if I gave up. I won’t give up because I am not scared of death, and I believe that being a Muslim woman, I might not have support from the conservative community around me, but I do have a great support from Almighty Allah.

My final message is this: Never, ever think you are above someone or below someone; Just know you exist, which matters. Leave the past, leave the future, live in the present. When you start doing that, you become a fearless person.

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