Profile: A Pioneer in Pakistan
Muslim computer scientist
promotes gender equality.
By Julie Bawden Davis
When Maliha Elahi started a computer-run bulletin board service in an ultra-conservative part of Pakistan in the early 1990s, the Toastmaster used her young son’s name to conduct business, because at the time, and even today in some parts of the country, it was unheard of for women to even speak to men.
“People couldn’t know that a woman was running the business, so all of my dealings with the company were conducted by mail,” says Elahi of the service, which constituted a pre-Internet information portal and social-networking site.
Elahi read about how to start a bulletin board service in an American computer magazine. Armed with a master’s degree in computer science, the young mother and recent widow ignored custom and ran the business. Over the next 20 years in Pakistan, Elahi forged a successful career in computer science and project management training and has worked toward expanding gender equality.
Elahi is among the majority of Pakistanis who are Muslim. She describes herself as “devout.”
“During Ramadan I have collective prayers at home,” she says. “I struggle but manage to pray five times a day. I performed hajji [a pilgrimage to Mecca] with my son two years back.”
In 2008, she chartered a Toastmasters club in Islamabad, the country’s capital. The Islamabad Toastmasters has 35 members – both male and female – and has earned Distinguished Club status each of its first two years.
Elahi’s experience with public speaking dates back to the mid-1990s. After passing on the bulletin board service to a colleague, she took a job maintaining an e-mail server. “At that job I was urged to hold weekly public information sessions regarding the Internet and e-mail,” she says. “During my first presentation I was really nervous, and the session turned out to be excruciatingly boring. Afterward, a co-worker who had fallen asleep during my talk critiqued me and offered tips for making the session more exciting. I took his advice, and the presentations got much better.”
Elahi stayed at that job for a few years and then worked for the government’s tax department, where she made waves expressing exactly how she felt about the treatment of women in Pakistan.
“There are some areas of the country where females wear trousers and drive, but in other parts of Pakistan, women still remain behind the veil,” says Elahi of the multicultural, ethnically diverse society. “Peshawar, where I worked in the tax department, is ultra-conservative. There many women walk three steps behind men, and most don’t drive their own cars. I’ve never walked behind a man, because it’s demeaning and there’s no logical reason for it.
“When I worked for the tax department, I was quite rebellious and insisted on driving my own Jeep. I got a lot of attention because I was the only female driver in the city at the time.” Her rebellious ways provoke strong reactions from people close to her. Elahi says her independence has alienated her own mother. “We have parted ways,” she says. Her siblings are also confounded by her nonconformity: “My sister to this day says she can’t understand me.”
On the other hand, Elahi notes, she has friends and family who are supportive of her independence.
Struggles and Perseverance
While many men in the tax department accepted Elahi, she struggled with harassment from some who refused to take her seriously. She resigned in 2000 and moved on to work for the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) where she served as head of Data Warehousing Directorate for the entire country of Pakistan. That position required her to give presentations to high-ranking visitors about NADRA’s state-of-the-art technology. In 2003 she also began training individuals on project management.
“Training took some getting used to, but once I got comfortable, I learned that I had a knack for public speaking,” she says.
Elahi eventually started her own training company, Business Essentials, which she ran for several years, serving as a consultant to a wide range of businesses.
Suhail Iqbal worked with Elahi at NADRA and praises her professionalism and speaking ability. “NADRA was developed from scratch, and Maliha was a pioneer member,” he says. “Her straightforward approach made it possible for NADRA to have an immaculate Data Warehouse that is still functional and serving the entire population of Pakistan.
“Her personality is imposing and charismatic, and when you supplement that with her exceptional speaking skills, she has a magnetic, motivational appeal that has allowed her to achieve great heights in her career.”
Elahi stumbled onto Toastmasters in December 2007, when she was at a conference in the city of Lahore in Pakistan to present a paper. There she met a Pakistani man who had moved to America but was attending the conference; Elahi shared with him how boring she thought the conference speeches were. “He told me about Toastmasters, and I remember thinking how funny the word sounded,” she recalls. “I wrote it on a napkin and looked the organization up on the Internet when I got home.”
Elahi felt that her community would benefit from Toastmasters, so she decided to start a club in Islamabad. She found one active club in the country, located in Karachi and asked for its guidance and support. At the end of January 2008, the Islamabad Toastmasters held its first meeting. Guests from the Karachi club attended and demonstrated how to conduct a meeting. Elahi served as club president that first year and has since helped charter other clubs, including one in Lahore.
Leading the Way
Mohsin Lodhi, the 2009-2010 president of the Islamabad Toastmasters, says Elahi’s leadership has been key to the club’s development. “She often comes up with creative ideas that encourage members to [stretch] themselves,” he says. “Her mentoring to the executive committee... enables members to excel in their professional and personal lives. And she clearly promoted gender equality by opening up the club to men and women.”
Elahi regularly mentors younger women, giving them career advice in a variety of areas, especially when it relates to gaining equal treatment in the workforce. And in her current position as business process manager for Teradata Pakistan, she is involved in the Women of Teradata Pakistan initiative, which is designed to promote gender equality.
Iqbal, the former colleague from NADRA, notes how Elahi has helped women in the workplace. “She has always promoted participation by other females and introduced several talented women to the field who have grown and progressed through her efforts,” he says.
When Elahi worked for the government’s tax department, she fulfilled a lifelong dream by earning her pilot’s license. “I would go in for lessons early in the morning before I went to the office, and some of my most beautiful moments have been up in the Cessna,” she says. “You realize when you’re suspended in midair how you can accomplish just about anything you want.
“I was restrained from doing much in life because of social taboos, but I broke those taboos by taking flying lessons in a place like Peshawar. The experience taught me that my dreams can have wings.”
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.