Tanzila Khan: disability rights campaigner tells young women ‘the world is yours’

Tanzila Khan does not like people feeling too sorry for themselves – or for her.

“I don’t like sob stories or tragedies,” said Khan, who is a disability and women’s rights campaigner in Pakistan. “I’m not saying they don’t exist – we can all face adversity – but I think we need a more positive approach to solving problems. I wanted to present people with disabilities in a more positive way.

“When I looked at the world, I didn’t see a space for myself. Not in TV series, not when I read a book … there was nobody who represented people with disabilities. I decided, ‘I’m going to create that space.’”

Khan, 31, wrote a short comedy film, Fruit Chaat, addressing some of the challenges she faced growing up in Pakistan as a wheelchair-user. It touches on four aspects of life for a young woman with disabilities: education, employment, entrepreneurship and love.

Inspired by her own experiences, Khan said the film is relevant to many women.

Poster for Fruit Chaat, an award-winning short film written and produced by Tanzila Khan.
Fruit Chaat, an award-winning short film written and produced by Tanzila Khan. Photograph: Moiz Abbas Films

“As soon as you start moving around the world, you face challenges. It’s difficult to find a school or a university that is wheelchair-friendly and has an elevator, so I had to pick the institution first, then my degree. Being yourself, out in the world, is the greatest accomplishment,” she said.

Khan believes her messages resonate with a wider audience when humour is added. “Tragedy and comedy always go hand in hand – and I choose to find comedy in every tragedy.”

Khan’s advocacy work around menstrual health demands a different tone: anger.

In Pakistan, Khan launched, delivering menstrual, reproductive health and maternity products to women anonymously.

“When we talk about Pakistan, it’s one country but there is a lot of diversity,” Khan said. “There are a lot of women who are empowered and have agency – but in the same country, you can find women who have never left the house or gone to school, so there are challenges across those diversities. For many women who work and go to the office, companies don’t have access to menstrual care, so what does she have to do? She has to quit the meeting,” she said. “It creates a barrier.”

Girlythings, she added, redresses imbalance. The reaction to these topics has, Khan said, been “extremely welcoming”, with significant support from Pakistani men. “It made me think: ‘Why haven’t we talked about this earlier?’ I’m only one person and I want to reach every corner, but this response makes me feel hopeful that our society is becoming very progressive.”

Last week, Khan was in the UK, picking up her Amal Clooney Women’s Empowerment award as part of the Prince’s Trust International awards ceremony. It has given her, she said, even more motivation to continue with her advocacy work.

And her message to other young women? “The world is yours. Whatever you want to do, just do it. Be bold. Step up and own it.”

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