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More than 30 years after Pakistan’s late military dictator General Zia ul Haq imposed strict Islamic laws on both women and mainstream liberals, his former home – a large colonial-style building in Rawalpindi – is now the unlikely location of a progressive university for women.

Fatima Jinnah Women's University, Rawalpindi

The Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (pictured below) offers a range of undergraduate and masters programmes, a PhD programme and the country’s first MBA programme designed exclusively for women.

The irony is not lost on either the faculty or the students, given the building’s historical background as the birthplace of the country’s legacy of hardline Islam.

“Maybe this is how justice has been done to the women of Pakistan, by giving this building to our first women’s university,” says Saeeda Asadullah, FJWU’s vice-chancellor.

Named in commemoration of the contributions made by Madr-e-Millat (mother of the nation) Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, to the cause of female emancipation, the university attracts women from all over the country and is funded by the Punjab government.

However, in spite of its background, the university has to deal with the same challenges encountered by many public sector institutions today – including issues such as recurring shortages of funds, modest salaries for faculty members, inadequate space for student accommodation and insufficient resources such as computers.

Such handicaps may well keep the FJWU at the lower end of the scale compared with the standards of the world’s well-endowed top business schools.

Yet a college providing MBA studies that is aimed solely at women gives even the most conservative of Pakistan’s Muslim parents the opportunity to send their daughters to a business school.

Across the FJWU’s spreading lawns gather young women dressed in diverse styles, from those who observe the “purdah” (veil) to those relatively exposed, dressed in a “shalwar” (baggy trousers) and “kameez” (long tunic shirt). But they are all at business school, which might in turn be the first crucial step towards embarking on a future business career.

Such an opportunity is in sharp contrast to a previous era when many bright women from conservative Muslim homes were forced to abandon their ambitions to study for an MBA because sharing a classroom and learning with men was considered to be in conflict with Islamic norms.

As it is the first – and only – all-women MBA programme in Pakistan, Ms Asadullah has been forced to be relaxed about class sizes. The average MBA cohort can rise to 60 or more students, in contrast to some of the other MBA programmes in the region that cap their class sizes at 30-40.

“Smaller MBA classes at our university would just deny the opportunity of a business education and a career to many young and very promising women,” says Ms Asadullah. “Every additional student in our programme makes a difference,” she adds.

The FJWU struggles to find internships for its students so that they receive adequate practical experience in addition to their classwork during the two-year MBA programme. Since its launch in 2000, however, more than half of its past graduates have joined the workforce.

The fact that the figure is not higher may well be an indication that conservative parents and husbands have prevented women from entering the workforce after completing the programme.

However, in defence of their former students who are not working, faculty members insist that for many, staying at home is a voluntary choice while they take time to raise young children.

The FJWU’s MBA programme syllabus includes such typical business school subjects as marketing, finance and human resource management.

Yet, the choice of adding “women in development” as a subject in the first semester programme has evoked mixed reactions from students.

Some insist that such a course bears little relevance to their MBA programme but others
disagree. “We have to teach ‘women in development’ because our girls need to know about their own position [in society] which is very important for them,” says Javeria Hasan, one of the MBA students.

Students also believe that a point must come when women from FJWU need to meet both male and female MBA students from other business schools.

“We are not exposed to other universities,” says MBA student Ayesha Javed. “We need discussion forums as part of our overall development and training, and that needs to come through sessions with other business students.”

There is also resentment among students about some of the provisions tied to FJWU’s hostel facilities, including restrictions to internet connections for laptops and desktop computers.

Students who keep their computers with them must pay a monthly additional fee of Rps1,600, but even then their computers are not linked to an internet connection at the hostel.

“Our hostel warden believes that live internet connections will allow the girls to keep contact with the outside world and the families may not like that,” says one MBA student who asked not to be named.

Other students, however, flag up more specific challenges, such as the shortage of funds for public sector universities that affect facilities on their campus too. One such challenge is the lack of accommodation, which means that some of the FJWU’s students have had to be put up at a government-run camp a 20-minute drive away that is used to house those on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

“Many of our issues simply have to do with things like computer labs, a dedicated library and more buses, so that we have a more frequent service to other parts of the city,” says Ms Hasan. These gaps, if filled, would make a significant difference to the daily lives of FJWU’s students, including those on the MBA programme.

Nonetheless, in spite of such challenges, many students and faculty members insist that FJWU’s MBA programme is an empowering experience and one that can make a significant difference for young Muslim women aspiring to enter business careers.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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