FEMLEADS STORY - Seema Aziz

FEMLEADS STORY - Seema Aziz

From being the managing director of Pakistan's largest fashion retailer, to being the founder and chairperson of the largest NGO in Pakistan, which is also the world's second largest school system; Seema Aziz has come a long way in last 31 years. A commercial entrepreneur, social activist, educationalist and head of the renowned NGO, Care Foundation, the lovely Seema Aziz dons many hats. She is now often referred to as the ‘Pride of Pakistan’.

However, much before that, Pakistan society intended Seema Aziz to be a wife and mother. Her father arranged for her to get married at a young age, and by her early thirties she had a comfortable life as a Lahore housewife, married to a chemical engineer. Then she took charge of her own fate. In the late 1970s, well before the era of jihad, Pakistan was flooded with western products. People began wearing jeans and T-shirts, leading Seema to conclude that there was a market for high-quality Pakistani clothes produced locally. She opened her first shop in 1985, when she was 34, in Lahore’s ancient cloth market. Her family told her they were ashamed because she had gone into business, but her instincts were vindicated: the clothes flew off the shelves. Today she controls an empire of 450 Bareeze stores (translated as Blessing of God) across Pakistan and the Middle East. 

Seema and her brother, Hamid Zaman, started Bareeze 30 years back. Their aim was to create such a product in Pakistan, which would undoubtedly be the best of its kind. Their father had once bought a chikan embroidery machine, with which they started to work on their product. A chikan embroidery machine back in the day, was considered to be as luxurious and stand-out as a Ferrari. People used to be amazed at the idea of a woman opening up a clothing store in Lahore. But she never felt discouraged. They started in a small basement shop. They did face problems at every stage, but still managed to put everything together, in that Shadman-situated small shop. Right from the beginning, they were different, and their product was different. There were mistakes initially but they remained undeterred. And soon their first shop was launched on 6th April 1985.

Sefam, the parent company of Bareeze, was established in 1985 with the aim of manufacturing and retailing quality embroidered fabrics, equal in quality to the best in the world and made in Pakistan. Sefam started out with the Bareeze brand of embroidered designer fabrics but has now grown to a family of 12 brands, each of which are the largest in their category in the Pakistani market. By the mid 1990s Bareeze had emerged as one of Pakistan's most widely admired retailers, with shops in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Delhi, London, Manchester and Malaysia. Bareeze itself has made it to the list of Haute Couture which is a list of high end brands. It has managed to get onto that list by making extremely good quality clothing, particularly in ‘Salwar Kameez’. Bareeze now has shops in Pakistan and four other countries: India, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom. It also has a network of franchises.

Seema is the country’s most successful businesswoman, which in itself makes her amazing. What makes her extraordinary, however — and a figure who should be celebrated internationally — is something else. For the past 25 years, millions around the world have been buying elegant clothes and fabrics made by the said Pakistan-based textile maker but not many realize that their money helps educate Pakistan’s exploding and undeserved youth.

In 1988, there were floods in Pakistan. During these floods, entire communities outside Lahore were destroyed. That was when Seema reached out to them and made it a point to help those out in need. Seema had set up a factory in one of these villages, so she travelled to the stricken area. At first she concentrated on building new homes and delivering food and clean water. ‘There was no sewerage, no drinking water, no electricity, no roads,’ she recalls. ‘It was absolutely heartbreaking, only 15 miles outside Lahore, the cultural centre of Pakistan. I became like the pied piper, with hundreds of children following me around, all barefoot, matted hair, runny noses.’ Seema asked why the children were following her. She was told that there were no schools and they had nowhere to go. That was the light-bulb moment when she made the decision that would go on to transform the lives of so many of her fellow citizens. While helping the affected, she couldn't help wonder to herself what will happen to these people the next year when floods would envelop them again. She wondered about the difference between herself and those less fortunate and of course the difference without a doubt was that of education. These people needed serious help. Looking at those faces, the children out of school, nobody to help them and take charge of their problems and invest in them, she realised she was blessed with an education and a vision. That was when Seema decided to make opportunities for them in terms of education. When she planned on opening a free-of-cost school there, everyone thought she had gone crazy.

Her decision to set up a school and provide those children with an education did not meet with universal support, however. Many ridiculed her when some of the children who would attend her school didn't even have a home or a roof over their heads. Others told her that ‘The poor don’t want to study.’ Her response: ‘Everyone wants a better life for their children.’ ‘I put the money together, begging it from friends and family,’ she remembers today. ‘I counted the bricks. I signed every bag of cement so it wouldn't be stolen.’ The first school she opened was on 17th January 1991 on Sheikhupura Road. A total of 250 children could be seen standing outside the school, called Care One. These children were barefoot but had big smiles on their faces. The next year there were 450 children and so the numbers just kept multiplying. Today Seema operates 256 schools, many in rural areas. There are 180,000 children studying under the Care Foundation school programme currently. Some 9,000 children take their matriculation every year, where the passing percentage is that of 81 or 82. They give a sound education to boys and girls who would otherwise be illiterate, and many of her alumni have gone on to become teachers themselves. Others have trained as engineers, businessmen and women, doctors, surgeons, soldiers — their lives utterly transformed by Seema Aziz and her CARE schools. Indeed, they are now starting to change Pakistan itself, helping this beautiful but damaged country make use of the abundant talents of its population.

‘I wanted to give boys and girls an equal chance,’ she says. ‘There was no way I could segregate them.’ This challenged the rule that all schools should be single-sex. ‘For many years I was terrified,’ remembers Seema, ‘because I feared that if we failed we would take back the cause of education and freedom and equality.’ A setback came when her policy was attacked by a politician on religious grounds, forcing Seema to announce that the school would close its doors. The following morning 500 parents had gathered outside the school gates demanding that it should be kept open. The politician retreated. The second principle guiding Seema's schools is the teaching of English. This, too, was regarded by some as heretical: many leading Pakistani politicians, Imran Khan included, have insisted on the use of local languages. But Seema maintains that refusal to teach English amounts to apartheid, because it cuts pupils off from Pakistan’s cultural, business and political elite. ‘How can I say that my children will go to English schools, but I will open schools where children only study in Urdu?’ asks Seema. ‘We are educating the children of our nation, the future of our country. We must give them a fair chance.’ Equally controversial has been her third guiding principle: that her schools should charge a fee. ‘There are two things wrong with the idea of free education,’ says Seema. ‘People don’t have a stake in it, so they don’t take ownership. I don’t want any child growing up believing they are being educated on charity.’ After four years, Seema was ready to open a second school, and soon afterwards a third.

In 1998, the Punjab government, impressed by her success, asked her to take over a group of 10 failing government schools in the suburbs of Lahore. But, says Seema, ‘they had no toilets, no drinking water, no library. In some schools I found children doing guard duty, or massaging teachers’ legs, making tea, looking after teachers’ children. This was not education.’ For two years teaching unions blocked her reforms, but in the end she was successful. Today CARE educates approximately 175,000 children. Huge though the number sounds, however, it is still a drop in the ocean: there are estimated to be 52 million children in Pakistan, of whom barely half attend a school of any kind. Many of those who do are pupils at one of the country’s notorious government schools. 

While Seema herself was only allowed to study home economics at school (though she later went on to pursue her law degree in her mid-thirties), graduates from Seema's schools are an inspiring bunch. There’s 22-year-old Muhammad, who owns a call-centre business employing 30 people. Fatima, a confident young woman, also aged 22, won a scholarship to Lahore’s University of Technology and Engineering to read civil engineering. She now works as a consultant to a big firm and plans to do a Ph.D. Muhammad Azam, the son of a casual labourer, is now in the final year of a cardiology degree. There is no other graduate in his entire extended family. There’s also Umair Ali Akmar, a musical prodigy who regularly performs in front of the prime minister. But for CARE, she would never have learnt that she had any talent, let alone pursued a musical career.

Seema Aziz has spoken about CARE on global platforms such as the Clinton Global Initiative and the Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs in North America (OPEN). She has made it to the list of Women Power 100, flanked by women from all walks of life, for her endless service and contribution to the under privileged. Although she’s still serving as an Executive Director of Sefam (Pvt.) Ltd., she’d more than anything like to expand CARE schools to teach one million children. ‘Because I believe education is the right of every child. We must reach every child. We want to change the destiny of this country. Because the thing about education is that it’s not one person that you are educating — it’s for ever. An educated person will never allow their child to be illiterate.’ 

 

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