WKND Interview: Shaniera Akram on embracing new culture and taking up a cause
“One day, we will do this interview in Urdu,” says Shaniera Akram, right before breaking into a giggle. “Let me put it this way: I can definitely cook and make a cup of tea. And I can understand Urdu, but it’s just a matter of confidence to be able to speak the language.” Shaniera says she is essentially a shy person and, while attempting to speak the language, there are moments when she finds herself inspiring laughter. “Sometimes, I end up saying, ‘I am a horse’, and everyone would start laughing. Then I retreat into my shell. But I understand about 80 per cent of it,” she adds.
Eight years ago, Shaniera made Karachi her home when she married legendary Pakistani cricketer Wasim Akram. The couple is said to have met in 2011 in Shaniera’s hometown Melbourne. A few months of courtship followed before the couple tied the knot.
Moving to another country and embracing a culture vastly different from your own is not a cakewalk, but Shaniera seems to have blended seamlessly. Talk about the initial few months in a new city and she remembers being “unnerved”. “There was no question of living anywhere else. But the best thing Wasim did was to leave me here alone frequently in the first two years of marriage as he travelled around the world for commentating assignments. I had two boys to look after. They needed me and I needed them. That’s when I began to learn Urdu, learnt how to cook, and basically stand on my feet. Had he been around, I would have depended on him more.”
This gradual assimilation means that, today, she says she likes herself better in Pakistan. “I get to put my values and ethics to test here,” says Shaniera, who has often been called the national ‘bhabhi’ of the country. “Pakistan will test you. If you treat it well and give it a chance, you will find so much love in this country. I had to learn not to be too critical of people and be positive. It’s really important because coming from where I do, we tend to take things like running water and electricity for granted. It’s really important to stay positive because, if you don’t, it can swallow you up.”
Staying positive has been instrumental for her. Today, she lends her voice to many causes that are close to her heart, one among them being avoidable blindness in the country. According to The Fred Hollows Foundation that works on the ground to offer vision-restoring surgeries to the underprivileged, close to 1.8 million people in the country are blind and in 85 per cent cases, the blindness is treatable.
As its ambassador, Shaniera has taken up the cause of raising awareness on treatable blindness and recently spent time with blind women at a hospital in Punjab. “There were about 16-18 women who had not been able to see for years. They felt they were worthless, they were all nervous and the energy in the room was sombre. They weren’t even sure if the surgery would work. But the next day, it was completely different. These women were so joyful and happy to talk to each other.”
The surgeries cost as less as PKR 2,000, but awareness continues to be an issue. Treatable blindness particularly impacts rural women who find themselves cut off from familial and work spaces because of the condition. “When you think of women who are blind, it impacts their ability to contribute or help out in the family. They could be cooking, looking after their families or helping out businesses but, being blind, they cannot. With Pakistan ranking second lowest in the world in gender equality, this is a matter of concern. When you restore a woman’s sight, you literally give her back her life.”
As an ‘outsider’ looking in, if her voice resonates among people, it is also because she claims to be speaking “from the inside”. “I am part of the team. We are all experiencing this and I am only using my voice to make things better,” says Shaniera. “Maybe people like the fact that someone’s got their back.”