Dr Anisa Qamar is a professor of plasma physics at Peshawar University in Pakistan.
“I was born in a small village in the north of Pakistan where cultural stereotypes mean females are not allowed to go to school,” she says.
“My parents were well-educated and held education to be a priority, regardless of gender. Indeed, my father built the first female school in the village, but the social pressure was still there.”
She and her parents, she recalled, faced this pressure “boldly”. Her father ensured she received both primary and college education, and played an active role in supporting her admission to university. She was also helped and encouraged by a family friend, Zari Sarfaraz (1923-2008), a noted campaigner for the rights of women in Pakistan.
“I was fortunate,” she says. “I was born into a family that was pro-female education and autonomy.
“Many of my colleagues, female students, relatives, and neighbours have not been so lucky. Parents normally forbid their kids, especially girls, from raising any questions or arguing with seniors.
“Girls who lack docility, or who show wilfulness, are considered disobedient and are seldom recommended for betrothal by the society. With marriage and raising family being the ultimate goals for women, docility and submissiveness is instilled knowingly or unknowingly.”
Early in her career, her academic prowess was recognised by Pakistan’s President, who presented her with a gold medal.
At university she completed her M.Sc. in experimental physics before going on to undertake a PhD in theoretical plasma physics under the supervision of Professor Ghulam Murtaza, who was the student of Nobel laurate, Professor Abdus Salam.
“Male students and staff find it hard to accept a wilful attitude in female students and colleagues,” she reflects.
“It is a daunting task for female students, especially graduate students, to raise their voices and get their views through. To avoid being blamed as disobedient and aggressive, many females at the university or workplace resort to distancing themselves from any aggressive females, a kind of social boycott.
“Such consequences deter many girls from asking questions or debating an issue. Any academically or intellectually challenging and stimulating task is first assigned to male students or a group with a male student as a leader. This impedes the performance and creativity of female students, especially in physics.
Despite the challenges, she became the first woman not only in her family but also in her entire province to gain a doctorate.
By this time she was married. Her husband, a medical doctor, is a strong supporter of her work and career.
“I joined the University of Peshawar in a contract role – the only woman in the physics faculty,” she says.
“Even with a presidential gold medal and 14 international publications and two postdocs, they still didn’t promote my position for three years.”
Her experiences have led her to build networks for women scientists in her region. In recent years she has organised the first Pakistan national conference for women in physics, followed by two regional conferences on the same theme – the first held in Pakistan, the second in Nepal.
“I wish to continue this series and help South Asian women in physics to highlight their problems, so that organisations such as IUPAP can take action on their behalf.”