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“So what?”: A Conversation with Dr. Zahra Babar

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

As part of the Mentor Tea series, on October 9th, the Women’s Society at Georgetown invited Dr. Zahra Babar from the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University in Qatar to share her personal and professional journeys. 

Dr. Babar has been working at CIRS for 11 years, with her research focused on food and water security as well as migration and migrant rights in the region. Her journey with social work started in her home. Babar’s father, who was a huge influence in her life, was a diplomat and consequently, she grew up all around the world. She told us that in her youth she was confronted with the dilemma of doing hands-on social work versus getting a degree and living a more comfortable life. That is why she began looking into work at Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Pakistan.

Her hands-on experience with NGOs began in Peshawar, where she worked for four years. Her work comprised mostly of poverty alleviation in rural areas. A huge lesson she learned from being on the ground was, as she stated, “your cosmopolitanism doesn’t give you a better insight to make important decisions.” Dr. Babar mentioned that her experiences taught her to listen and be attuned to people’s needs as opposed to just hearing them in hopes of responding. Another important lesson she learned from working with disenfranchised women in Peshawar was that women in any household need paid labor. It gives women a greater degree of control over their lives and their choices. That was not the only lesson she learned about gender dynamics. In fact, she encountered the patriarchy within her own team.

Her office in Peshawar was very conservative and male-dominated. She stood out, she said, “like a sore thumb.” Because she was a female, they automatically put her in the women’s department although this was not the department she necessarily wanted to work in. At her request to move departments, she was told by her superiors that the other departments were filled with young Pathan men. She responded, “So what?”

“So what” is really the essence of Dr. Babar’s experience, not just in the 4 years at Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) in Peshawar, but also in the 5 years she spent at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) branch in Lahore. It was about the push that she and many women in the field of social work had to make. It was about contributing with the skills and ideas that she had while also being unapologetic about her presence in male spaces. There was no compromise.

Her experience at the ILO provided her with incredible amounts of experience and learning. Her work for the organization helped her further her career and work later with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Muslim Aid as a long-distance consultant. However, she faced an unfortunate issue there as well. She had one of her contracts taken away from her due to her pregnancy. Despite these issues, she did not allow patriarchal norms and obstacles to stop her.

After her two consultancy positions which she completed while living in Australia, Dr. Babar moved to Qatar and that is where her Georgetown journey began. She initially started working as a researcher that focuses on migrant workers in the Gulf region. Dr. Babar talked about how this was a huge transition from advisory work. It was a real jump out of her comfort zone and that self-doubt, although frustrating, did not stop her from exploring academia. 

Now, Dr. Babar has published numerous publications during her time at Georgetown and continues to inspire students, especially women, to not submit to the patriarchal standards that have been set out for them. She has paved her way as a researcher and as the Associate Director of Research for CIRS at Georgetown University in Qatar despite the various obstacles that she has faced.

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