Culture 02 October 2017
She was born in Pakistan, a place where girls and women receive little to no support or resources to become successful, strong women in life either personally or professionally. Somehow though, Shama Zehra beat those odds, becoming one of the youngest female entrepreneurs in Pakistan.
She started her first company, one focussed on clothing design that she started in her family's apartment when she was only sixteen-years-old. She then earned two MBA's before joining the largest private sector bank in Pakistan as a Senior Officer and serving as the product head for the Pakistan International Airline (PIA) co-branded card. It was the first frequent flyer credit card in Pakistan. She soon moved on to a position at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. She's a whirlwind. And that was just the beginning. She is now busy at work on an app called Jetzy “that taps into the emerging market of 'flashpacker' millennials who are lifestyle travelers that prefer to travel on their own terms, connect with locals and discover hidden gems all while making friends globally." The app already boasts users from 137 countries and almost half a million social media followers.
How does a Pakistani woman do all of that in spite of it all? Well, for one thing, she follows her own advice when it comes to challenging the negative messaging so many women still experience today in nearly every one of life's arenas is simple - she allows the things that don't serve her to simply go in one ear and come out the other.
Here's more on just how Zehra has managed to accomplish the remarkable work she has done.
What gave you the confidence as a child to think you would ever be more than "someone's wife"?
When I was growing up in Pakistan, women were generally considered inferior human beings to men. Although it's gotten better today, it's still expected for a woman to be an extension of her husband, and her own dreams and ambitions are not encouraged or taken seriously. I was blessed with parents who were both entrepreneurs, with a ton of ambition, especially my mother, who was fearless, resilient, and supportive. She always encouraged me in my career all along the line
What inspired you to start working in fashion as a teenager?
I have loved fashion, lifestyle, and travel since I was a kid. When I found an opportunity to build something in the fashion space, I jumped on it.
How did that apparel company succeed despite you being a woman growing up in Pakistan?
From the beginning, we knew it wasn't going to be easy. Pakistan is a hard place to run a small business, let alone a business run by women. Women were not treated with the same level of respect and importance as men in Pakistan. Between not being taken seriously in business negotiations and dealing with thefts, the setbacks we faced only encouraged us to work harder to overcome adversity. I heard all the time “you can't do it" from multiple men and some women too. The negativity only gave me the fuel to prove even more people wrong.
What were you parents' reactions when you started the apparel company?
Well, my mother, sister, and I started the company together. So they were all for it. My mother was no stranger to entrepreneurship. So she encouraged me and was my biggest supporter every step of the way.
How did you come to sell that first company?
We started the company in my family apartment, and it grew rapidly. We soon moved on to a facility where we could build a small factory with six staff members and a flagship store. We were doing business to customer from the store to women and business to business to the Pakistani equivalents of Macy's. We also had pop-up stores at five-star hotels. Despite our success, the infrastructure problems (thefts, security issues, bomb blasts, curfew in the city, lack of electricity etc.) made it very challenging for small business owners to succeed in Pakistan, especially for women, that's why I decided to sell the business when I was twenty.
When you were a little girl, did you ever imagine you would be where you are today?
Yes and no. I knew I could do a lot for some reason. I'm not sure where my drive was coming from. But I was very driven even as a child and used to think about creating another McDonalds. I didn't know that I would be so fortunate as to pursue my passion of travel. Jetzy has made it all possible for me.
If you could speak to every little girl and young woman growing up today under the current administration, what words of advice would you give them?
I would strongly encourage them to ignore those who look down on them and use their discouragement as fuel to prove them wrong. No matter what you do, you aren't going to please everyone, and that's life. For young people who think they may not have what it takes to run their own business or make it in a certain industry; just follow your dreams. By surrounding yourself with the right positive people and pushing the limits, you truly can do anything.
What would you say is the greatest challenge/obstacle you ever encountered?
I would say the biggest challenge I faced was the security issue in Pakistan. Let alone all other issues, we had to work hard to stay alive and stay safe. Gender equality issue was another area. Not only was it extremely relevant in Pakistan, but on Wall Street as well. The finance sector is obviously a very male-dominated industry. Proving myself in several markets, I put in the time, discipline, and work ethic that was required for me to succeed in these male-centered environments. The female role models we have in business today are incredible. Women are now given a lot more equal opportunity that they were given in years past.
What is your dream for the future both for yourself and for all women across the globe?
I want to grow Jetzy so that it can help people in all walks of life. For women across the world, I want to be a resource of advice and connections.
Come join my Jetzy girl on the app. I will be building a channel of career connections for women globally who join Jetzy girl on the app.
How do you stay inspired?
Meditation, prayers, yoga, my little nephew, and, of course, my Jetzy family all keep me inspired.
All Photos Courtesy of Shama Zehra
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.