Uzma Solangi’s house is the digital cynosure in her village, Dhundh. Located in Sindh's Larkana, Dhundh is around 400 kilometres away from Karachi. Women in Dhundh typically have a predetermined life trajectory that usually encompasses marriage and children, Uzma, at the age of 25, has decided to hold off on marriage to turn her house into a digital incubator, revolutionising the spread of menstrual education and awareness among the women in her village.
She has done this in collaboration with Aurat Raaj, an organisation that seeks to empower women and spread awareness about menstruation in Pakistan.
“If I was already married, maybe I wouldn’t be communicating any information to the girls in my community,” Uzma said in Urdu during a Zoom interview. “They [husbands] say don’t do this, don’t do that,” she said, referring to the many restrictions and responsibilities placed on women after marriage in her village. These restrictions, in which husbands do not allow their wives to step out of the house, hinder the autonomy of women.
In rural settings, even though some girls are educated and have completed their end-of-high school Intermediate exams, typically they are married off early and not allowed to use phones or leave the house. Uzma believes this is an archaic way of thinking. “Every girl should have enough knowledge to use a phone,” she said. She hopes to eventually marry someone who is not so restrictive.
Her activism and digital literacy have touched numerous lives within and outside her village. Uzma helped financially support several women after their families were laid off during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Shaiwana Pathan, her coworker from Aurat Raaj. “I realised that somebody was there to support 13 families,” Shaiwana said.
Shaiwana first met Uzma while working for Sindh Rural Support Organisation (SRSO), an organisation funded by the government of Sindh to achieve poverty reduction by organising and facilitating a flow of financial and intellectual resources, and through support for rural grassroots organisations' infrastructure. “Uzma is a shining star, not only is she a community leader, but she is also a teacher and entrepreneur,” said Shaiwana, referring to Uzma’s ability to take on challenges and multitask energetically.
When Uzma is not working on spreading menstrual awareness and digital literacy, she teaches first graders. And when she is not at her job as a teacher, she is spreading knowledge and awareness about menstruation to the women of her village.
In association with Aurat Raaj, she conducts workshops in her house where she teaches the girls and women around her about menstruation. This ranges from the basics and biology of menstruation to menstrual hygiene and how to use period products. Additionally, she distributes menstrual hygiene products and conducts listening parties.
These listening parties contain audio information in Urdu and Sindhi that she helped record, enabling rural women to learn about their bodies in their local languages. “The rate at which she learned to professionally record audio for the first time, I have never seen another woman learn something so quick,” Shaiwana exclaimed.
Even though menstruation is a taboo topic in Pakistan, the folks in Dhundh have been very accepting of the discourse around menstruation in the village. “They [the families in Dhundh] have never told us to not take their daughters [to the sessions],” Uzma remarked.
Uzma’s values can be attributed to the loving and supportive family that she was raised by. She grew up in a house full of intricate applique bedsheets and traditional quilts called rillis crafted by her mother, coupled with progressive values and support.
Despite not being able to get an education himself, Uzma’s father pushes for the education and digital literacy of his children, including his daughters. Given that the enrolment rate of girls in schools in rural Sindh is 39% as compared to 61% in boys, Uzma believes that her father has a “pretty good way of thinking.”
Now a cook in Mohenjo Daro, he is happy to hear great things about his daughter from SRSO workers during his job.
The sense of male allyship in Uzma’s story does not end with her father. In rural Sindh, the mobility of women is limited. However, Uzma’s three brothers help her commute to work. She also spoke about Ahmed Ali Junejo, her sixth grade teacher who encouraged her to continue her schooling to further her career. “I wanted to be just like him,” she said, and she did. She now teaches elementary school students.
When Uzma is not doing her work, she is helping her mother out at home and crafting applique designs using inspiration she found on the internet. “I have even made this one,” she said, gleefully pointing at the pastel blue head covering or chador she was wearing on the Zoom call. She, alongside her mother, sells these applique fabric and clothes to the women in the village. However, her business also exists on the online market through WhatsApp. Uzma now gathers orders from all over the country, including other villages and cities such as Karachi and Hyderabad.
Despite promoting digital literacy, Uzma stressed the importance of reducing screen time. She said that she does not use her phone past 10pm. When she is not in front of a screen, she finds time within her packed schedule to indulge in her love for animals. She has had the companionship of her cat, Bonnie, for the past three or four months and she often dresses Bonnie up in handmade jewellery. Besides Bonnie, Uzma also has goats.
Uzma says she wants to keep working hard, spreading knowledge, and helping people. As she continues to work with Aurat Raaj, she is determined to commit to new opportunities that come her way. “Whatever I will have to do, I will do with all my heart,” she said.