Aurora Magazine

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Published in Jan-Feb 2018

A woman of quiet influence

A book review of Zubeida Mustafa's My DAWN Years – Exploring Social Issues.

I recently told Zubeida Mustafa that I had an issue with the subtitle of her memoirs. I feel her years at DAWN were more meaningful than simply the pursuit of social issues, important as they are and clearly close to her heart. With over 30 years at DAWN, many of which were in the position of a senior editor, Zubeida had a more significant impact on the newspaper than perhaps she cares to lay claim to – out of her inherent modesty. Her years at DAWN did see a shift in editorials, from ambivalence to clear positions on issues that matter – democracy, pluralism and rights of the marginalised, to name a few. If Ahmad Ali Khan (the editor for most of her years at DAWN), was her mentor, Zubeida too, in her own quiet way, exercised a significant influence on the newspaper’s journey.

In July 1975, Zubeida was working as a researcher at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs when DAWN ‘discovered’ her and she was interviewed by Ahmad Ali Khan. She is taken aback by his humanity, his concern for her young daughters who he fears may be neglected if she takes up a job with demanding hours. She notes that had she been a feminist at the time, she may have taken offence at the intrusion into her private life!

Zubeida’s memoirs are almost as much about Khan sahib as about her time at the newspaper. It is clear that he had a tremendous influence over her professional development, as well as ideals. She admires his integrity and the independence he guarded so firmly.


In My DAWN Years, Zubeida also writes about the projects that were close to her heart. When the newspaper became part of the ‘One World’ supplements, Zubeida was given the responsibility of coordination and editing. An idealistic concept, One World supplements brought together some of the world’s leading newspapers to write and report editorially on issues of common concern.


She writes: “This relationship between the management and editor of DAWN to which I was witness, was quite remarkable… The two were distinctly separated and the editor was a professional journalist… A proof of this delineation of powers was evident from the line the newspaper took editorially on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution when Mahmoud Haroon, the proprietor, was a part of Ziaul Haq’s establishment. When Bhutto was executed, DAWN wrote an editorial on April 7, 1979, titled ‘Bhutto: the end of a great promise’. Commenting on the execution of the Pakistan People’s Party leader, the newspaper wrote, ‘No one – not even the most impenitent of his political foes – could have wished Mr Bhutto to end as tragically as he did…’"

The editorial independence, she notes, continued even in the post-Khan sahib years which saw greater interaction between the editorial staff and the newspaper’s management. While Zubeida shows her reverence for Ahmad Ali Khan, My DAWN Years also covers her experience of working with the editors who succeeded Khan sahib. It is an indication of her professionalism that she shows the same respect for an editor much younger – and less experienced – than herself, Abbas Nasir.

At the time of Khan sahib’s retirement, there was hope among many of Zubeida’s women friends that she may be appointed his successor, becoming the first women to hold that position in DAWN and Saleem Asmi’s appointment as editor was seen by many as a sign of misogyny. In My DAWN Years, Zubeida responds to such perceptions by stating her own reasons for not wanting to be editor; the primary one being her aversion to dealing with administrative matters. Nevertheless, Zubeida did reach the top, even if one notch below the editor. In writing about receiving the International Women’s Media Foundations Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, she narrates how she had to clear the misconception among the organisers that she was the “first woman journalist in Pakistan”.

However, she explains her position: “What I could lay claim to... was being the first at the decision-making level in the mainstream media. From that position I played a dual role. First, I would inject the women’s perspective in the subjects DAWN would cover editorially and also in news reporting. That allowed the socio-political-economic issues affecting women directly to find more space in the newspaper and from the feminist perspective.”

The above excerpt is from the chapter, Being a Woman in a Man’s World in which Zubeida doesn’t just write about her own journey in a male territory, but acknowledges the contribution of many more women – her seniors, peers and juniors – from the English, Urdu and Sindhi language press. She mentions, in particular, the many women who preceded her in journalism, including Alys Faiz, Anis Mirza, Mariam Habib, Naushaba Burney, Zebunnissa Hamidullah, Zuhra Kureshi and Razia Bhatti, of course, who truly exemplified courage in journalism. Zubeida’s position at DAWN also helped open the doors to many young women who entered as reporters and sub-editors.


My DAWN Years is a noteworthy contribution to the history of DAWN (which is yet to be published) as well as to the larger world of print journalism in Pakistan, particularly when so little has been recorded. Memoirs are important sources for people researching the history of the print media in Pakistan.


In My DAWN Years, Zubeida also writes about the projects that were close to her heart. When the newspaper became part of the ‘One World’ supplements, Zubeida was given the responsibility of coordination and editing. An idealistic concept, One World supplements brought together some of the world’s leading newspapers to write and report editorially on issues of common concern. This responsibility, she writes, gave her an opportunity to travel and to meet many well-known editors of the time. The other project the writer is particularly proud of is Books & Authors. Introduced shortly after Saleem Asmi became editor, Books and Authors replaced the features on books in the newspaper and was published as a 12-page magazine. It was a unique initiative. Apart from carrying book reviews, interviews with authors, Books & Authors also helped sustain an interest in reading.

My Dawn Years is more than a chronicle of a journalist working for Pakistan’s major English language newspaper. It is also a fair account of what those 30 years meant for DAWN as it faced myriad challenges, ranging from the demands of technology to competition from new and slicker publications. One of them, The News, succeeded in luring away several of DAWN’s editorial staff members. Zubeida describes her own, and rather interesting, encounter with the management of The News when she was made an offer that she did not take too long to turn down.

My DAWN Years is a noteworthy contribution to the history of DAWN (which is yet to be published) as well as to the larger world of print journalism in Pakistan, particularly when so little has been recorded. Memoirs are important sources for people researching the history of the print media in Pakistan. Ahmad Ali Khan’s autobiography, In Search of Sense, which he could not complete and which was published posthumously, provides a significant insight into the workings of DAWN and the considerations that framed its editorial policies. However, women journalists have been rather reticent in recording their experiences and insights. Razia Bhatti, for one, sadly left no account of her experience as editor of Herald or Newsline, although the period presented many difficult challenges to journalists. Zubeida too, had to be coaxed by friends to write her memoirs. Now that she has done so, one hopes other women journalists will be encouraged to follow.

My DAWN Years
By Zubeida Mustafa
Paramount Books (Pvt) Limited
240 pp. Rs 695

Zohra Yusuf is Executive Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R.