Interview with Saba Khalid
Aurat Raaj is a digital content platform that educates, entertains and empowers Pakistani women through inspiring articles, videos, podcasts, case studies, animated films, and workshops. Aurat Raaj recently launched a chatbot, called "Raaji," to answer questions from Pakistani women about health, education, self defense, and a number of other taboo topics.
We at LAMA recently had the privilege to interview Aurat Raaj's founder, Saba Khalid, about what led to her founding Aurat Raaj, the issues users discussed most often with "Raaji," and how young women in South Asia can overcome the restraints of traditional societal norms. Her answers are an inspiring snapshot into the life of a female founder in Pakistan.
Check out our exclusive Q&A session with Saba:
Could you please introduce Aurat Raaj and what led to your founding the platform?
Aurat Raaj means 'women rulers' and the reason I started it was simply because there was so much gender violence and inequality in Pakistan. Specifically, there was a case that happened where a girl named Qandeel Baloch, a social media star, was actually honor killed by her brother. That story was just so graphic and difficult for me to fathom. So I wanted to use my platform to give women a voice and visibility, so they did not have to feel so threatened, and they could raise their voice when it comes to domestic violence and the lack of security they're facing.
How does Aurat Raaj use animation, artificial intelligence, and workshops to educate and empower young women in South Asia? Why are these such powerful platforms for disseminating information?
I knew right away because the kind of topics that I was introducing and the progressive thoughts that I had wouldn't be taken well by a large audience in Pakistan. My parents were very scared about my safety because a lot of activists in Pakistan have died, this was a very difficult space to be in. So, I thought: "What if I hide myself behind a character that would deliver all the ideas that I have about girls being able to cycle, travel around the world, girls not married early, having the safety to walk around wherever they like?". All these ideas were put behind a storyline of a character, drawing it up and made it very relatable.
What have been some of the biggest challenges and rewards founding the platform?
The biggest reward for me has been the fact that so many allies, friends and mentors have come forward from all around the world. Maybe they can't even pronounce my organization's name, because it's urdu, but they believe in it and say that they would do anything possible to help you to get the goal of empowering women in Pakistan. The way that the community has come forward in this goal is my first reward. The second is the impact we made: our stories have been used in schools and want the character to visit in real life and it's hard to explain that she actually doesn't exist, she's just an animated character, even though they feel that she's real and all of these stories are real. The challenge has been my family obligations, because my family is very scared about my safety and they always think that the place where I'm holding workshop and the activities that I'm doing could be potentially harmful for my life.
What have been the most pertinent issues users have approached Raaji with?
The kind of issues that actually came on our test bot - we couldn't even believe what they were about. They were about girls needing advice regarding the legal aspects of divorce, or, for example, not being allowed to go to school. Also domestic abuse - girls have often taken our advice and gone to safe-houses or shelters. Sometimes when we're notified about abuse, the chatbot is turned off and our team is notified immediately refer to a psychologist or another human agent, because for us the bot cannot provide the empathy that's needed for a problem like that.
What advice do you have for young South Asian girls hoping to gain autonomy and challenge societal gender norms through their professional and academic endeavors?
The simplest way I would tell girls to do this is to first become financially empowered. Once you work, once you have your own money, you can make a lot of decisions for yourself, and nobody can impact them or take over your independence. You're the one who's paying for your rent, you're the one who's paying for your food, your transport. You can really start setting your boundaries when you're financially empowered. That's something I started doing in my twenties - I wanted to be in a situation where I didn't have to depend on somebody.
At what age did you realize you wanted to to dedicate your career to empowering young women?
I'd love to say that I always wanted to be a feminist, I wasn't. I had very dogmatic views about feminism and equality and I was also severely brainwashed about these topics as a kid, teenager and young adult. When I had the exposure to a society that was very close to what equality meant was when my brain open up and actually understood that we women desperately need it in Pakistan. So, I became an activist much later in my life.