Published in Sep-Oct 2019
I was 19 years old. Sitting on my hands, anxiously leaning forward as Zuhra Karim, dressed in a crisp sari gathered neatly at the shoulder, read a piece I had written with an inscrutable expression. At stake was an internship at She magazine. I had been referred by a friend who was a regular contributor. After 15 minutes of pin-drop silence, Mrs Karim peered over her glasses and told me with a half-smile and her trademark ‘betay’ in a clipped English accent that it was good and I could start on Monday. And that was the start of a two-month internship, which turned into a job that lasted two years.
Mrs Karim was my first boss; the editor and publisher at She, a publication launched in 1963 with great optimism and a progressive stance. My interaction with her was limited to mainly: a) praise for the good pieces I had written, b) being given more work when she thought I had too much time on my hands (in my defence I was a fast worker which I suspect she found both exasperating and satisfying in equal measure) and c) a blunt conversation when a colleague complained about me. She heard me out patiently and then with the same half-smile said it was probably because I was leaving the colleague in question out and was more friendly with my fellow intern. At her behest, said colleague and I sorted things out in a car ride home and are still friends.
She was the best start for a professional career that one could hope for. The office was a high ceilinged loft like space, open-planned (before open plan became a thing) and inhabited mostly by women barring five men; the illustrator/page maker (all manual in those days), the computer operator (a later addition, giving the illustrator more time to draw portraits of the girls), two marketing men who never spoke and reported to the formidable Mrs Masood and the tea man who made the most awful tea (may God rest his soul). Mrs Karim was strict about timings and liked a calm working environment – which was an easy fit for a girl from a convent school; there was never any talk of religion or politics and diversity was encouraged.
Perviz Masani remembers Mrs Karim as a die-hard perfectionist. She was a demanding boss but generous with opportunities which we were all hungry for. “She was low-key and refused to give interviews. Perhaps this is why she was such an enigma.” And she was an enigma, even to those of us who worked with her. A stickler for routine and discipline, she was deeply private and reserved but her door was always open for feedback, critique or advice.
“She taught me the work ethic that took me on future career paths, [she taught me] time and people management, how to balance work and family. You hear a lot of conversations and pronouncements around women’s rights and women helping women but Zuhra Karim just got on with it, all in a day’s work.”
When it came to stories and opportunities there were no holds barred. Mrs Karim gave flexi hours to young mothers and encouraged a work-life balance (except for the week before the issue went to print). An Urdu version of the magazine was introduced to bring in more readership. Apart from the fashion and fluff, there were serious stories on women’s issues, social issues and health. I don’t ever remember any of our stories being censored, or being told what we could or could not cover. “For me, she was the mentor who encouraged me to think in ways I was not used to, question situations I took for granted and raise issues that sometimes I didn’t even know existed,” adds Masani.
It was a great mix of the superficial and the meaningful – so no surprises that it was the highest selling English magazine at 30,000 copies at that time (easily outselling Herald which pleased her to no end). At the time we liked to think we were quietly changing society with articles on women’s health, interviews with feminist icons and frank conversations. It is somewhat poignant that the words from her inaugural editorial still hold true: “Today, more than ever before, our country needs women to help it battle against centuries of prejudice, superstition and ignorance. Ceaseless wars have to be waged against disease, illiteracy and poverty. And who can do this better than the hand that rocks the cradle.”
Naheed Maalik who was hired at the age of 22 talks fondly about her approval – which everyone worked very hard to get, and the work ethic she instilled. “She taught me the work ethic that took me on future career paths, [she taught me] time and people management, how to balance work and family. You hear a lot of conversations and pronouncements around women’s rights and women helping women but Zuhra Karim just got on with it, all in a day’s work.”
She ceased publication in the early seventies for about a decade (if I recall correctly, it was the increase in the cost of paper and printing post the 1971 war) only to re-emerge in Zia’s Pakistan with the same feminist stance intact, but updated for a younger Pakistan in the eighties.
The magazine’s core team also survived a divorce. Mrs Karim was first married to Omar Kureishi. His sister Bilquis Nasrullah was the fashion editor. By the time the magazine took a sabbatical, Mrs Karim and Omar Kureishi had divorced and she married Masud Karim. When the magazine returned, so did Bilquis Nasrullah. That Mrs Karim’s friendship with Aunty Billy (as she was known in the office) survived a divorce is remarkable and that they returned to work side by side is incredible but completely in line with Mrs Karim’s stoic and pragmatic nature.
Writer Sabyn Javeri, who worked at the magazine some years later, calls her a true class act; “a hard task master... uncompromising, a perfectionist and an absolute professional. I don’t think I have ever met anyone quite like her.”
Like Sabyn, everything I learned about professionalism and teamwork I learned at She. If I am able to critique my own work, it is because of my experience there. Yet, unlike Sabyn who considered Mrs Karim a friend, the rest of us never really did get to know the person behind the reserved exterior. She was, as Perviz said: “an enigma”. And while I found her intriguing, I was never able to muster the courage to begin a conversation. Perhaps she would have surprised me.
In the last decade, she gradually withdrew from work, eventually ceasing completely as her health dwindled. She raised two children (three if you count the magazine) and was a devoted grandmother by all accounts. Her passing coincided with the demise of another icon – Herald magazine. I have a sneaking suspicion while she would commiserate with the latter she would have been secretly pleased that She outlived them both.
Rashna Abdi is Chief Creative Officer, IAL Saatchi & Saatchi.