Knowing just how busy Zareen is these days, in the run up to her TED Talk in a few days and making Red Rebel Day preparations (among many other things!) I wanted to keep my catch up with her as short as possible. I hadn’t gone so far as to set a timer but I tell her I’ve changed my tactics and have come up with a few questions to guide our interview, to help keep us efficient. The great thing about Zareen is that however stretched for time she is, she always stops to ask how you are. She tells me that it’s been one of those days where she’s being pulled in every different direction, but she recognises and appreciates the work I’m doing too. Our topic of conversation today is International Women’s Day, a day which is often marked down when I buy a new diary at the start of the year, but also a day I haven’t given much thought to. I start by asking Zareen why International Women’s Day is important and what difference she thinks it has made in the world. It’s huge, Zareen says, it gives women a platform to express themselves and to feel connected to other women in different places. She describes it as a way for women to see themselves as part of a ‘collective force’ and most admires that its inclusive of all women.
‘It’s really lovely to see women from all corners of the world getting involved’, she says and points to the power of IWD as a platform for women in harder to reach communities, especially as a space to discuss women’s human rights. We talk about the different issues that face women in the UK compared to experiences in different countries and just how important it is to recognise that situations vary, and remember that some of the things we take for granted in the UK are not the standard elsewhere. This leads us nicely on the theme of IWD for 2021, Choose to Challenge. I ask Zareen to tell me about her own experiences of challenging gender bias and she explains that it has been a lifelong struggle, but especially around the time she got married. Zareen married into a traditional Muslim family while her own family were more liberal, still a practicing Muslim family but in an English setting. She was born and brought up in the Black Country, went to art school, and describes herself as ‘very English’ in her ways. She feels she was lucky because her family encouraged to follow her own path and so she didn’t face as many barriers as she might have. I can relate to that because I have people around me telling me that I can do it, so believe that I can and it really makes all the difference. Getting married was when the struggle really began for Zareen, she describes herself as being quite a shock to the system of her new, traditional family. Over time Zareen won them over and to this day loves the insular multi-ethnic community she lives in, for its richness and diversity. She recognises that there are challenges there, but feels that she has had made a positive impact in her family and community. ‘I made a stand of us women!’ says Zareen, and as a result more often than not the women in the family will go onto university and have successful careers, as ‘lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, all kinds of things.’
It’s often the case that those who have come from the worst situations are the most ambitious to make a positive impact in the world. Zareen refers to the school and college for needy and orphaned girls she set up in Pakistan, in memory of her daughter, Halimah. ‘The opportunity for a good education completely changes their lives and because they’ve been given that chance often they choose to come back to the school wanting to share their knowledge with the students.’ It’s a ripple effect, and a far reaching one, because seeing the success of the school in Pakistan, many in Zareen’s community in the UK wanted to follow suit. She acknowledges that there is a lot of work left to do because while things have improved for the girls who are born and bred in the UK, things can be very different for the women who come over from different countries, because as Zareen says, they ‘won’t necessarily be encouraged to learn to speak English and get out into society and find their calling’. She points to how this situation has worsened due to the pandemic, and directly affects the menstrual health of these women. ‘As housewives, its typically their husbands or father-in-laws who are the ones going out to do the shopping and the women often don’t have to the confidence to ask them to buy sanitary products,’ instead they resort to using materials they have to hand, in some cases, tissues and socks.
I ask Zareen what she thinks needs to be done to help women in the situations she describes. ‘It’s different in every household,’ she says ‘but first the groundwork needs to be done, to build the confidence of women, so that they can give themselves permission first.’ She explains why IWD is an important resource for this, because it’s a huge platform where the issues that affect women specifically are being engaged with. ‘It says to women, its okay and you are a human being just like the men around you. Your rights are important.’ For Zareen it’s vital that women don’t feel they have to cover up their period or feel ashamed about it. She recalls a personal experience where she felt the need to make an excuse to her female boss at the time because she didn’t feel well enough to do a presentation. She recalls afterwards thinking ‘why did I have to do that?’ and believes that a greater level of flexibility in work places and greater understanding on the part of both men and women will massively help not just menstruators, but everyone - those suffering from endometriosis, experiencing menopausal symptoms, and many other conditions. One thing that the pandemic has revealed is that working form home is possible and for some people it’s even more effective, so why not allow people to work from home when they need to? ‘It’s a human rights issue.’
I tell Zareen about my own experiences of female friends, who themselves experience very little pain and a light flow during their period, who have played down the severity of my discomfort. ‘Sometimes women are our worst enemies!’ says Zareen and I have to agree, much of this issue can be solved with more education and crucially increased empathy. Zareen is positive that attitudes can be changed, the example of her own family gives her confidence. ‘I had long bearded uncles and nephews, head-scarved aunties and nieces side by side at my warehouse, packing and labelling boxes of period products which were on their way to refugee camps. We’ve normalised the conversation in our family and if I can do it, anyone can.’ She recalls that day with fondness, noting that it was in the Winter time and they decorated the warehouse with fairy lights to give it a cosy feel. Before getting to work, Zareen explained to her volunteers what it was they were working towards and who the products would help, and they all worked passionately. Since then Zareen’s business has grown so much that it outgrew this warehouse, but the effect of that day was so great that Zareen is thinking of having a warehouse specifically for The Gift Wellness Foundation, where volunteers and schools will be encouraged to help the charity efforts but will also participate in discussions designed to provide more education on the issue and what can be done to help.
I end by asking Zareen how she intends to celebrate IWD, knowing that will be the day I publish this blog post, and that I plan to spend a little more time thinking about how I’ve been supported by women around me and how I can help others. On IWD she will of course be preparing for her TEDx Talk in Stroud on March 11th , and her interview later that day with Dr Sam Collins of Aspire, who has invited Zareen to be a part of her inspirational women roadshow. ‘You have so many interviews!’ I say to Zareen, ‘How do you manage?’
‘I know’, she says, ‘it’s crazy. But it’s good, because it’s getting the word out.’
Can you help get the word out this International Women’s Day? Zareen’s charity The Gift Wellness Foundation is running the #RedRebelDay campaign on March 21-22nd and aims to raises £100,000 to support women in crisis and who are in desperate need of sanitary products. Visit periodpoverty.uk for more details about the events our team is running and how you can help by taking part!