The young woman who refused to open the door of the teacher’s car had a reason. “I have never unlocked a car door. I don’t know how to,” is how Samina Amin Qadir, the vice-chancellor of the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University (FJWU) remembers the student’s response.

Such experiences have reinforced Prof Qadir’s belief that Pakistan’s only all-women university for arts and business takes many of its students through a “transformational experience”.

Established in Rawalpindi in 1999 as the first public sector university exclusively for women, the FJWU makes education accessible to women from conservative Muslim homes who would otherwise not be allowed to attend a mainstream university. It also takes female students from impoverished families who cannot afford the exorbitant fees charged by private universities.

“Young women who come to FJWU include many from circumstances beyond your imagination. They come from poor families who are simply unable to afford even a regular bus fare let alone a car,” says Prof Qadir.

The FJWU’s MBA programme accepts about 60 students a year and in the past decade has seen more than 800 students graduate. It is located in the Old Presidency – the former official residence of Pakistan’s heads of state. Previous residents include the late military dictator Zia ul Haq who introduced some of the most rigorous laws targeting women, an irony for those who see FJWU’s role as the empowerment of young women.

Many of FJWU’s students enter the programme under the impression that they will not be taught alongside men. However, the reality of going through an MBA programme soon exposes women to an environment where men and women work side by side. The six-week obligatory internship takes place in a non-segregated environment and students can find themselves working in organisations ranging from the ministry of the environment, to the Pakistan Red Crescent society to the US embassy in Islamabad. The students also find themselves competing aggressively with male students from other universities in events such as job fairs.

“From day one, we push our business students to face the rigour of the practical world” says Prof Qadir.

“The students may step into a segregated campus which is for women only, but they must then face the realities of the practical world. That’s what an MBA programme is all about.”

One recurring challenge for the university is the shortage of faculty members. The monthly salary of a professor armed with a PhD at FJWU is approximately Rs100,000 ($1,110) or roughly half the average wage offered by private universities.

“The situation with the faculty is problematic,” says Naheed Zia Khan, the dean who oversees the management degree programme.

In part, says Prof Khan, the faculty’s salary structure is a reflection of the subsidised fees of the students.

“For a two-year MBA programme we charge approximately what private universities will charge for one semester. We make our programme affordable but then we must also deal with the challenge of resources,” she says.

Another difficulty is the shortage of facilities such as hostels and sporting venues for the women students. For Anooshe Zia, a young undergraduate business student, the price of entering the BBA programme at FJWU was giving up tennis.

“I had to give up because there are no women tennis coaches” she says, although there is access to other outdoor activities.

But for students and faculty members such drawbacks are easily outweighed by the business skills that are learnt on the MBA programme. “When we reach out to the market, the challenge is mainly to prove we can be as competitive as our peers from other universities” says Saira Javed, an MBA student who will graduate this summer.

“Recruiters want to know if we are up to the quality they need.” Ultimately she adds, coming from an all women’s MBA programme is of no importance, what counts is the graduates’ ability to run a business.

Farah Kausar, another MBA student, says that the quality of the business projects undertaken by students as part of their MBA programme are of central interest to employers.

“The projects that we are assigned typically drive us out of the campus in search of solutions. How we package the projects and their outcome is what usually counts.”

Maryam Rab, FJWU’s registrar believes that for recruiters what is important is the students’ ability and performance. “Companies need work horses. Our graduates are capable of being just that,” she says.

Though FJWU’s recruitment records show that only 321 of its 800 graduates or about 40 per cent are employed, Ms Rab says that the figure does not include those who are self-employed or involved with running family-owned businesses.

Such businesses range from single, family-owned retail outlets to factories that have a large network of customers.

The FJWU also teaches its students to launch businesses using capital from banks such as the First Women’s Bank which is dedicated to giving preference to women borrowers.

The FJWU programme includes courses on drawing up a business plan that can pass the rigorous scrutiny of banks before loans are awarded to prospective entrepreneurs.

“The skills they learn as MBA students are applicable in different ways. Going to work for a formal big business is one but [working for] family-owned businesses are also important applications,” Ms Rab says.

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