Aurora Magazine

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Living My Dream

A day in the life of Maria Umar, founder and president of Women’s Digital League.
Published 07 Mar, 2023 06:43pm

Most people know me through my social enterprise, Women’s Digital League (WDL). Or maybe I am being kind to myself and the real reason they know me is because of my Twitter spats with the powers that be. Either way, I make myself proud and when I am not having panic attacks at night overthinking the things I have said, I am pretty comfortable having the tough conversations that need to be had.

I wish I could say my day starts with light yoga and a jog in the park, followed by an acai bowl for breakfast. It doesn’t. It depends on which side of the bed I wake up from. (It is always chaotic, no matter the side, but there is exciting chaotic and then stressed and angry chaotic.)

Let’s look at the bright side (that is the side I woke up from today). I usually get up at 6 a.m. in order to wake up my 14-year-old for school. She has an alarm clock, but the urge to hit the snooze button sometimes wins over the dreaded ‘momster’ she may have to face later. Somehow, she needs an hour and 45 minutes to get ready (she is ready in 10 minutes; the rest is spent on Instagram). After making sure she is properly up, I usually head back to bed until about 8:30 a.m.

A good habit I picked up (can’t remember where) is that I have to make my bed as soon as I am up. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment which I carry with me throughout the day. No matter how chaotic my work or my thoughts are, I need a clean, organised physical space.

The most difficult decision of the day is what to wear. Working in the development sector has spoiled me. I would literally choose from five outfits, put up my hair, wash my face and boom – done. Working in the corporate sector means maintaining a semblance of formality. In my opinion, you have to respect the space you work in, and the most basic thing is to make sure you are presentable. So now, I have a proper wardrobe and accessories to match (the old me just did an eye roll). This is usually followed by a Twitter tirade about how Careem and Uber are useless – although I continue to use them every day.

Work is hardly work. I am living my dream of working at a fintech-based social enterprise on a financial inclusion project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This last sentence is almost filled with all the keywords that make my heart happy. Add ‘dessert’ to it and it would be perfect.

I start by going through my emails and making sure I have not missed any important communication. (A rule I try to avoid looking at work-related emails/WhatsApp messages once I am home.)

Work comprises a lot of reading and research, writing, strategising and planning the next steps, so it can be quite intense.

An open-plan office means easy communication, but it can get noisy, so I have my headphones on most of the time. The part I enjoy the most is meeting our beneficiaries – women running micro businesses, such as kiryana stores, vegetable and fruit stalls, and canteen stores in schools in low-income areas in Lahore like Kumahan, Chungi Amar Sidhu, Kahna and Baghbanpura. Although I have lived in this city for 10 years, I would not have been to these areas had it not been for work.

Sitting in our neat little privileged silos, we start to believe we are outliers fighting against societal norms and acting as flag bearers for women’s rights. Meeting these women is incredibly humbling and their stories have made me choke up several times; the divorced mother of two moving into her parents’ home and starting a small kiryana from the house; the fruit and vegetable store owner who had to step out of the house when her husband fell ill and could no longer continue to work; the woman disowned by her family for converting to another religion and who got a loan from a kind neighbour and started a shop selling low-end mobile phone accessories.

My timings are flexible and most days I am home by 5 p.m. Usually, I am greeted by a very annoyed Sher Khan (my cat – he hates being left alone). I take some time to look through my emails and LinkedIn messages for WDL – it’s usually pretty quiet there, except for queries from students about their thesis surveys or job requests.

Once a week, I quietly reflect on the work I do with WDL, and wonder whether I ought to be doing more. I still wish I could run online tutorials for upskilling existing and new freelancers and provide them with counselling services. Although donor organisations and the government have done a good job training students in digital freelancing, there is still a lot to be done, especially for women above a certain age. During and after Covid-19, I noticed that a lot of women were asking for ways to earn online, mostly because the male heads of their families were laid off. These women not only require focused training, they also need a lot of hand-holding. Freelancing can be quite lonely and even frustrating, especially when waiting for work to come in. Making sure that these women are counselled by people to whom they can speak comfortably and be guided and supported by is very important if we are serious about giving them employable skills.

Most evenings I go for a walk. This is my favourite time of the day when I can listen to music and clear my head of the negative thoughts that inevitably distract us from our purpose. This is followed by a bowl of oats for dinner over Netflix or YouTube. Ten-thirty p.m. is the absolute cut-off time when the kids and myself are tucked in bed, even if we stay up reading or scrolling aimlessly for another half an hour or so.

Maria Umar is a gender inclusion and women economic empowerment specialist. She is the founder and president of Women’s Digital League.