Femmerang had a chat with, Director, Photographer, Mother, Wife and Home-Maker Mandana Zaidi. Let’s Dive in.
Femmerang: Starting with your childhood, tell me about where and how you grew up.
Mandana Zaidi: I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and Kenya’s conditions were not very likable after a few years of our birth. My father’s side of the family lived in Lahore, Pakistan & he said he wanted to go back to my homeland and there’s nothing like a homeland. My mother was not in favor of us moving but she couldn’t sustain. We lived in Nairobi for ten years and four of us, two brothers and two sisters were born there. Then, we all moved to Lahore and I think I was five years old when I moved to Pakistan and since then I have been here, in Lahore. My father has been a professor and then the chairman of Punjab University, fine arts department, so, art and painting. My mother was also a fine arts student & she was a painter. So, they met there, had a love marriage and my mother was the only daughter.
So, we came back to Pakistan, lived here long. My brother, who was the eldest, was never happy here. He said I don’t want to live in Pakistan. He was the one who left Pakistan after FA. After FA, he said to baba (my father) that he did not want to live in Pakistan and my father told him he would send him abroad if he gets admission and passes the exams. So, he actually did that. He applied for universities and got him admission and then my father had no choice, and being a professor at that time, he had two jobs. He was working for advertising and was simultaneously teaching at university. It was not easy for him to send him but as he had promised, we actually had to give up our home in Model Town and give it out for rent and move to a new campus, residential area, which is given to university professors. And, we moved and my brother was sent away to the USA for studies.
We have spent our whole life in Lahore and he went abroad. I completed my master’s in fine arts from university and all my education is from here, fine arts in Lahore College because ‘’ didn’t have fine arts at that time. So, that’s it. I pretty much had the culture in my house of a lot of students coming for help from my father, a culture of art and craft, assignments, and projects and I was very close to my father, always glued to him. I had a very strange relationship and a very close one with my father. My mother was a housewife; she had to raise four kids. She used to teach in Grammar but then she had to leave because we were too young and it was complicated. And then she was diabetic so she could not survive it, shortly after I got married.
Our childhood was very nice. Cousins used to come and stay over during summers, there used to be my father’s students at our place, a lot of interactions with older and younger people. So we were all very social, rather say I was very social, my brothers not really and my sister was not also really. I think because I spent a lot of time with my father, I was a very social person.
FR: So you basically got introduced to all these different kinds of people, different things because you were just close to your father, you spent a lot of time with him.
MZ: And my father is like a poet, painter, and writer. So, there is a lot of influence of all of those things, and art. Mostly on me than any of my other siblings and I am the only one out of my siblings from an arts field.
FR: The way you saw women living in Africa, and then you came to Pakistan, was there a huge difference? Did that impact you and your adult life?
MZ: I think there was a lot of difference. When we came to Pakistan, even the schools were Urdu medium. So, the education system we were used to, we had no sense of Urdu in our lives, it was very difficult. One year even got wasted because no admissions were taking place and also, even math and sciences were in Urdu, and we couldn’t cope with that. So, we had to waste a year getting our admissions, all of us actually stayed one year behind our classes. But then, it was hard to cope with it. I was very different as a child. I was very talkative and people could not understand this behavior over here. It was that time when somebody talking in English would be a prefect. And being a girl, and in my house, there were no limitations and it wasn’t like you are a girl so you cannot do this. I think I got that culturally from my house but had to deal with external things where my friends did not get permission to meet us or come over to our house. But, still, I made a lot of friends and kind of a good relationship with them & still in touch with them.
FR: What was your first experience when you first felt like you are now a woman.
MZ: I think I felt like a woman after I got my periods. You have to behave like a woman; that’s the kind of conversation that started happening around me. You can’t play with boys and I hated being a woman. My brothers used to ask me to not go out. They were very protective of me. It was kind of suffocating me but my father was the biggest supporter of what I wanted to do. I did everything, maybe in the reaction of it but I just had to be out there. There was no boyfriend and there was no need for it. Around me, all my friends, in my college time, started having boyfriends and this and that, dating, hiding it from the parents but I just didn’t like it. I could not agree with it and was very suffocated by that concept. How can you meet a guy and you’re bluffing and lying and you have a relationship and never going to be married to the same man and the love and all? I think already got it from my family, maybe that’s why. That care, that affection, that emotional strength that I needed at that age to know the right and wrong and to know the difference between what would work and not.
Boys who were my very good friends, and there were a lot of male friends I had, we had good communication. But, there is no concept like that in Pakistan. If a girl went out with you somewhere, guys used to think she’s his girlfriend. I used to make it very clear. I was a very straightforward, honest person when my feelings were concerned. I would love to say that yes, there were men that I liked but somehow I had this clarity there’s not somebody I could spend my life as a married couple with them. Too young to make that decision, that’s what I used to think. It was because of the learning from my father when he was home, he was sitting with me, chatting, writing, drawing, or doing something with his students, and am just sitting there.
FR: How hard or easy have you found it to be a female in the real world as a Pakistani?
MZ: I think I started working right after school. I did an internship in Lahore Museum, I remember. I said to my father that I want to do some work. I helped this woman for 3-4 months, the summer holidays at the time when you get admission into college, and when I was working at the Lahore Museum, I got exposed to a lot of nature, artwork, and catalogs. It was a lovely experience, very independent. I got some pocket money. That independence really took me from there to the fact that when I got to my university, I started acting. I stopped taking money from my father and I started paying my own fees. Since there was too much responsibility on my father, I wanted to do it myself. I started acting and did this play called ‘Shashlik’ and it was a very big, popular drama that came on PTV. It was a sitcom, and I played the role of a girl who came from a village, started living in the town, and she had to cope with it. Sarmad Khoosat was in it. Nadia Afghan was in it. When I was getting admission in the university, she called me and said you wanted to act so here’s the role, and we are shooting a pilot, come tomorrow and shoot it with us. It was that and I started acting. And from that, it just carried on and when I was doing masters, I left it because of papers and exams. I had to give my thesis so I had to drop it. And by that time I also met Ali Noor, who is now my husband. We started working on his album and his dream and passion and started dating him. When he said to me that I can only date a woman who can go tell her father am dating this man and I said that’s brilliant, I want to do that exact same thing. I went to my father and told him that baba; this is the guy, if you like him very good, if you don’t like him he’s going to be shelved. He had met him before because of my sister. My sister was working with him. So, he really liked him, his family and all, and said sure. That’s how we had a 7-year long relationship. And in that relationship it was quite crazy because at that time, having a relationship and because he was famous and the whole world knew about his girlfriend, the only sanity was the fact that I had I had told my father, my father knew, my family knew, so I had no fear in my head about it. Our relationship was primarily built on affection, love but also work. So, that kind of kept us together.
FR: Being a female in Pakistan, these things are definitely difficult to manage. For guys, they can do whatever they want, you can date five girls at a time, no one’s going to say anything and justify it as that being part of a man’s nature. For girls, if they talk to even one guy, people make a big deal out of it.
MZ: I am sure, I must have had this too but I was very lucky. I would say luck because there was no engagement, there was no commitment, and there was no thing like they are going to get married. I just went along with my gut and I believed in our relationship in a very different way, I would say. And sometimes Ali Noor says to me that we were meant to be together. I guess it was like that. As childish as we were at that time, we did a lot of breakups too and all that what young people do. But the fact is that things were so open with my parents, which I don’t think any woman has experienced. The relationship was so clean between my parents that they would criticize me, also told me things that I needed to know and at the same time they were not imposing themselves. They wanted me to be independent, to make my own decisions. And I think that is the only privilege I had than other women. I swear because of that confidence, I was able to not give a damn about anybody else. When you have your own support system with you, you don’t care about what the world is saying.
FR: That’s the most important thing as because of this girls and boys hide and end up making wrong decisions.
MZ: There are a lot of mistakes that can happen a long the way and a lot of heartbreaks and a lot of things that are involved in this process and I think, being patient and more logical about stuff kind of helped. Again, I had no friends like me, as because of their own household system, they could not do that. One of my friends, who really liked this guy, she wanted to marry him but her parents did not let her do that and got her married off to her cousin. At that point in time, it was all happening around me but in my house I felt there was always this freedom that my brothers also had and my sister and I we both had. We could make our decisions and they (parents) would support no matter what, whether wrong or right.
FR: Have you felt like over the years, in Pakistan or in general, the work you’ve done, it has been little bit diminished or has been not as appreciated as it would have been if you were a guy/man?
MZ: I think, I feel, being married and being in a relationship – I’ve been married for 16 years now and before that knew each other for 7 years – the biggest learning of mine is that over time I had different roles to play as wife, bahu (daughter-in-law), and daughter and now am a mother. The biggest role that I feel has been taken for granted is being a mother. It’s like you are a housewife, a housemaid and you feel guilty and it’s your obligation. Once you become a mother, the responsibility is by default yours. I think that’s where I don’t agree with this Pakistani culture. Men have completely taken a side role because you ate the housewife. Even if you’re working or not working, your job is to come home and take care of the kids. Your job is to cook food and to take care of or manage the servants that you have. But your duty is your responsibility but my (men’s) job is to work and provide.
FR: And these are not men who belong to older schools of thought, these are men right now who are enlightened, who are brought up with us and who understand everything. But they just have this idea and explaining this to them is so hard. One of things where you just want them to do it, take care of it. I am working the same hours you are and why am I supposed to just take care of it?
MZ: That is what bothers the hell out of me. I think, from an old generation, I don’t want to pass it on to my kids. I don’t want my son to think like that. I don’t want my daughter to think like that. I want them to have life partners, if they ever have, who are able to be like partners not be a just providers because that’s a very easy role, women and men both can have it but then woman having it will also be doing the house chores, so why can’t men do that? I think that’s what woman liberation is about. I don’t think it’s about anything else. It’s you who has to believe in it and in our generation, we were not able to be taught this and now the times are right, maybe the time now is when we can teach this to our children, to our boys, especially. I don’t think they should not know how to cook or make a bed.
FR: What would you do differently with your kids, to raise them? I know you have a son and a daughter.
MZ: I tell them the same thing everyday. I want my kids to be independent. My 7 year old is very independent. My 11 years old is very independent. And they are on their own, they can survive and they can do their own things and they don’t need me and I intend to keep it like that. I raised them to believe that if they need somebody in their lives that will be based on their equality, their partnership, their relationship should be stronger than just taking care because that goes hand in hand with being together. I tell them that you have to learn to cook, my son does a lot of things with me, my daughter does a lot of things with me and I just train them to be like this. There’s no difference being a man or a woman. My daughter says there is no gender discrimination anymore, mama. There is no thing as a woman or a man anymore. She’s already there. She says, don’t say that because am a girl, you’re asking me to do something. And I say, am not asking you to do it because you are a girl but because you’re older and you can do it. I cannot ask your brother to do it because he cannot even reach the stool right now. I can’t change my husband now but I can change my kids. And bring them to understand what their role in a relationship is.
FR: You said you cannot change your husband, which is true, how do you manage, household, husband, kids and all those responsibilities? I want to ask this question because I don’t believe that women can have everything.
MZ: I don’t believe in it too. I think it’s a lot organization. I try to keep my day more organized as possible. I have to have time slots to do certain things with my kids and leave them on their own for some time so they can do their own things. Give them space and own learning and experiences. And because my husband and I work together, we have a kind of relationship that also has work dynamics in it. For me, to find my space is very important. I have learnt it over a very long time, it is my responsibility to take care of kids and all but it is also my need to be doing something of my own and stay connected and have a kind of life where I can grow. So, that I try and balance it out as much as I can. With the passage of time, you come to terms with it. When I was young, and had a lot more energy, there was no way I would burn out but now I feel get burned out and feel like I have too much on my plate. I have to disengage myself from work I have given other people to do. So tend to do that now and yes, I can’t give my kids’ responsibility to anybody else and I have accepted it. It’s something I have to digest.
The only question we didn’t get to ask Mandana was that did she know Obama or her grandma growing up in Kenya? Maybe next time.