All posts by Sonya Rehman

Creatures of the Sun

By Sonya Rehman

I never thought I’d say this, but the mid/late 30s are weird. I’ve never been one to make a big hue and cry about hiding my age or stressing about hitting the big 3-0, in fact, when I turned 30, I was utterly excited. The 20s are an extended trial and error decade you see – where you fumble through the world, knocking things over, falling over and just being a complete blubbering little disaster. But when I turned 36 this year, I was gripped by quiet panic.

I felt like I was in a Mindy Kaling sitcom; Freeze the eggs! So many things to do! To write! Man to meet! Places to see! Experiences to be lived! Feelings to be felt!

But let’s back it up a bit: in 2009, after losing someone I deeply cared for, I voluntarily placed myself in a self-imposed love exile. I had zero self-awareness as a 26-year-old and I honestly didn’t even realize what I was doing…till literally a decade later.  Stripped of self-confidence and self-respect, I allowed myself to nose-dive into an abyss of shame, guilt and self-loathing.  ‘Abyss’ – sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it? But the truth it, it felt like an abyss of despair – I didn’t have the tools to get out. It was all in my head of course. And I allowed the narrative to play out within me and stretch out into my external world; the narrative that I was nothing and that my life was of little consequence to anything or anyone. I allowed this shitty story-line – with me starring as its loser protagonist – play out through my personal life. On the work front, I faked it. It’s true; I had many highs, and hung on to my career as if my sanity depended on it. And it did. But I overlooked the ‘work’ I needed to do on myself.

The narrative further perpetuated itself when a loved one battled cancer five years ago. There were many times I’d beg God during prayer to let the disease flow into me and that if one of us were to pass on, to please let it be me. My loved one valued life, not me. My loved one was a better person, not me. The trial, I felt, was grossly unfair, and I had these ridiculous delusions of self-sacrificing grandeur thinking I could visualize the cancer out of my loved one and place it in me. I wasn’t trying to morph into Mother Theresa v.2, I promise, far from it. But I was seized by an urgency to ‘save.’ If I couldn’t save myself, I had to save someone else.

It was nuts. But then again, grief does strange things to you. You become completely unhinged by it. It pushes you to the edge of your carefully constructed sense of normalcy.

Thankfully my loved one beat the disease, and for a while, I became engrossed in work again. I worked on my social life, met friends, and let myself live a little. But I continued lugging the baggage around lovingly. But in 2018 when the cancer relapsed, I went into auto-pilot mode. Given my loved one was holed up in quarantine in hospital with another family member for a month, I had to stay home and hold the fort. But there were times when I’d receive panicked phone calls past 12am and had to summon a cab to drive 25 minutes at high speed to the hospital. The PTSD was real. But I was emotionally very reticent. Even though I’ve lost count of the times I’d cry in a Careem, feeling exceptionally alone and sorry for myself in the presence of awkward cabbies. Perhaps that could make for a cute short story; the Careem Cry Baby – Maneuvering Through Lahore’s Heartless Jungle.

Anyway, I was so stoic and stable in the face of emergencies that I surprised myself sometimes. Emotional collapse was a luxury I couldn’t afford. And I still can’t. In Islamabad towards the end of last year, a close friend and I had a horrible accident. Luckily, no one was hurt. Later, my friend remarked how calm I was. But I’m digressing.

The past few months have been a revelation. When I think of them, I think of warm, golden sunlight after a terrible storm. Somewhere along the way, I felt a switch within me turn off. And then the baggage disappeared.

I feel radiant ever since I allowed myself to come back into my own after the premeditated self-exile. I don’t know how it happened and at what point it happened. Did I psyche myself out of the pain? Was the trauma therapy for my silly thoughts? Did it pave the way for self-awareness? Did it push me over the edge and let me taste the abyss only to spring back? Did I have to taste the abyss first before I could live in joy? Or was I suddenly more conscious of my mortality? Or maybe my soul was downright sick of me and was like; ‘Fuck you, I need to radiate some light out of this shitty excuse of a meat skeleton that you have on.’

And just like that, it was done. The inner work began.

Sometimes when I look back, I can’t even recognize who I was even three years ago. I now look at life and the people I come across with a lens of deep affection. I can’t help it. Again, no Mother Theresa syndrome, I can still be a real bitch sometimes.

But I’m dancing again. And that’s all that matters.


Won’t lay down our heads till the day is won
Won’t stop running till we reach the sun
Chasing all the things that are keeping us young
We won’t stop running till we reach the sun

We are all creatures of the sun
We’re all children of the rain
We’re just chasin’ what we can…





Hitting The Right Notes: Pakistani Music’s Comeback

By Sonya Rehman

After refining her craft in music production in Canada for five years, Haniya Aslam, returned to Pakistan last year to pick up from where she left off. A part of the local music scene for over a decade, Aslam thinks that the new phase in Pakistani music, that’s swiftly unfolding, is an exciting one.

Haniya Aslam. Photo courtesy of: Coke Studio

“I’ve been noticing a lot of young musicians who are really blowing my mind,” she says, “They’re all experimenting in completely different styles of music and the quality of their songwriting and production is so much better that what we were doing in our time.”

Having produced ‘Maa Behn Ka Danda,’ an anthem against patriarchy by the Pakistani girl band, Garam Anday, in 2018, Aslam believes that the revival of Pakistani cinema has cleared the way for young musicians and bands to claim their space in the local music scene.

“The renaissance in our film industry has allowed the old guard of Pakistani music to move up into the strata of film composers, therefore the new blood now has a bigger playing field to work in to have their voices heard.”

However, for the well-known sitar player, Rakae Jamil, it’s easy to get eclipsed amidst other up-and-coming Pakistani artistes who mainly use social media to gain a fan-base.

Rakae Jamil. Photo by: Amna Zuberi

“There’s a lot of interesting electronic and indie music being produced by young musicians; there’s so much content out there. But if it isn’t presented in an effective way – where people are able to connect with it – then that becomes a problem,” Jamil states, “Otherwise the sense of agency that young musicians have these days is amazing. You just have to really know how to present yourself in the space of social media.”

Like Aslam, Jamil too moonlights as a music producer, in addition to performing with his band, Mughal-e-Funk, as and when they get gigs. However, for Jamil, in order for Pakistani music to rise and thrive, an encouraging community of stakeholders needs to be fostered to help local music in sustain itself in the decades to come.

“It isn’t a question of survival anymore; it’s a question of growth and how people need to work together,” he says, “I see many collaborations happening between musicians, organizations and start-ups that are helping the music community by curating events and connecting musicians to investors who are interested in having them perform. It’s encouraging, but those interested in the arts need to continue working together to give Pakistani music a stronger foundation in the country.”

Having released his 5-track debut album, ‘Songs From The Cave,’ last weekend, Ammar Farooki has come a long way since his days of performing at embassies and house parties in the capital, Islamabad.

“After a long time there’s this huge inflow of new music thanks to technology,” says Farooki, who himself used popular social media platforms to publish his first album.

Ammar Farooki. Photo by: Danish Ansari

“The fact that new musicians can sit at home and master produce their own music themselves is fantastic. The new local music scene also now comprises of young women with great voices and sounds who are helping in pushing the scene forward.”

That being stated, a lack of venues for musicians to play at, in addition to the shortage of sponsors – unless you’re an artiste with a epic fan-following – has made the progression of Pakistani music’s new chapter slow and labored.

“It’s difficult as an independent musician because you have to practically do everything yourself, particularly if you don’t have a manager,” he says, “It’s appalling how some sponsors disappear and not pay, citing cash flow issues. So not only are you worrying about making new music, but you also have the added strain of chasing sponsors for money that you’ve coughed up from your own pocket. Just like my debut album that I’ve released for people to consume freely; the monetization element comes much later. But that’s the dilemma of the artist; you have to keep performing no matter what.”

For Aslam, celebrity culture has also impaired the field of music on home turf and overseas.

“In order to be a successful musician, you have to be a celebrity,” she remarks, “You have to become a brand and pitch yourself; you can’t just be a working musician. There’s no way to earn a decent livelihood by working steadily on your craft in the background. Everyone has to be a star on billboards. But the truth is, not everyone wants that.”


Exploring An Extraordinary Life in ‘Pureland’

By Sonya Rehman

Six years ago, during his research for an article on Pakistan’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist, the late Dr. Abdus Salam, Zarrar Said had an epiphany. Why not write a book about the man who was lauded by the world and yet ousted by his own country? Why not initiate a dialogue on an unsung hero’s extraordinary story of love, identity and loss?

The more Said studied Salam’s life, the more he was seized by a feverish urgency to share the physicist’s remarkable journey from a small town in Jhang, in the province of Punjab, to the world stage of groundbreaking scientific discovery.

“His life was a tragedy,” Said states, “It hurt me that not only were his achievements ignored by his homeland, but that his community – the Ahmadiyya minority in Pakistan – [have been] systematically persecuted and deemed as imposters.”

Zarrar Said. Photo by: Jehanzeb Hussain

Inspired by Salam’s life, Pureland, published late last year by Harper Collins, is the 38-year-old’s debut novel which includes some of the many intriguing elements of the physicist’s story amidst the backdrop of a country in the chokehold of religious fundamentalism.

A gripping read, Said admits that there were many times during the six years of penning Pureland when he felt compelled to abandon the notion of ever getting published, given the excruciating process of dealing with rejection upon rejection from a number of book publishers.

“There were many times I had given up,” he says, “But there was something about the story that kept me going. My characters are real living entities for me. I had to find them a home. I wanted to do justice to Salam’s legacy and at the same time, release this burden that I had put on myself.”

Zarrar Said’s debut novel, Pureland.

Based in New York, the author reveals how the running thread of magical realism in Pureland highlights the many fantastical incidents that took place in Salam’s own life; incidents which mesmerized Said to no end.

“[His] life was full of magic. When he was a young boy, his father took him to a soothsayer because he wasn’t able to talk,” the author states, “The mystic announced that he would one day speak so loud that the world would hear him. Salam’s life was a prophecy. Pureland begins with this very prophecy, but then throughout the course of the book, this is reminded to the reader through instances that might seem magical, but are firmly rooted in reality. Without reality, magical realism doesn’t work.”

With his novel currently shortlisted for the local Adab Festival Pakistan’s Getz Pharma Fiction Prize and his upcoming trip to Lahore as a featured author at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), next month, Said hopes his novel sparks a much-needed dialogue on the disregarded physicist in Pakistan.

“I only imagine what shape the country would have taken had Salam been allowed to live in Pakistan as a regular citizen with the ability to inspire other scientists,” he states, “But that’s not the case. Pakistan’s loss was Europe’s victory. My point is, societies cannot survive if they buy into the idea of being culturally monogamous. Building walls and spreading hate has its shortcomings. These kinds of stories always have bad endings. That is what I am trying to say in the book. Pureland can be anywhere. Let’s not let that happen.”


The Two Mavens Of Pakistani Radio

By Sonya Rehman

In a noisy café on MM Alam Road in Lahore, two of Pakistan’s most well-known radio personalities from competing FM radio stations swap notes about working in the local radio industry.

Friendly and chatty, Fizza Aslam and Sophiya Anjam’s affiliation goes back years, since both started out their careers in the midst of the local media boom in the early 2000s.

A radio jockey for fourteen years, Fizza Aslam was only 18-years-old when she began hosting her first show on City FM89, soon after its launch in the summer of 2004. At the time, Aslam states, a pioneering FM station, FM100, had just been re-launched, and radio had suddenly become an appealing form of entertainment for the Pakistani youth.

Fizza Aslam. Photo by: Adnan Qureshi

“It wasn’t a planned decision at all,” she reveals, “But listening to FM100 made me realize what a cool medium radio really was.”

Currently hosting Route 89, a show that runs five days a week, Aslam mentions that while her parents were supportive, they never expected her to make a career out of radio jockeying. “They thought it was a hobby, but over a decade later, here I am,” she laughs. “I love my job; I’ve been in the studio conducting shows while nursing a broken heart and while sick with jaundice – radio is part of my identity.”

Encouraged by a friend to give an audition at FM91’s headquarters in Lahore, Anjam took to radio like a fish to water in 2006. Today, apart from hosting ‘Drive On With Sophie,’ four days a week, Anjam also doubles up as FM91’s marketing head, hosts events outside of work and also launched her own Youtube channel, The S Stories, last year.

“Radio was very different back then,” she reminisces, “It was more about the programming and less about marketing. When I started out, we had the freedom to experiment with content and playlist curation for our listeners.”

Sophiya Anjam. Photo courtesy of: Almas.

“It wasn’t as commercial as it is now,” Aslam chimes in, “Radio is a major contender in the media sphere and it’s always an essential part of any organization’s marketing plan. Pakistani companies have realized that radio is a dynamic medium to reach out to their customers, hence they’ve begun investing in creating advertisements specifically for radio.”

Apart from dealing with her share of hair-raising incidents involving obsessive stalkers over the years, Anjam mentions that she’s had some heartwarming experiences too. One in particular, was when a father told Anjam how her voice reminded him of his late daughter. “He told me that listening to my show gave him a sense of peace, and that he felt like his daughter was talking to him.”

But working in a primarily male-dominated field and battling misogyny on a frequent basis hasn’t been an easy feat. “It was initially very difficult for me to supervise a team of men who didn’t take me seriously as a boss,” Anjam states, “It took me a long time to get to a point where I had to assert myself to get the job done. Men in our society can’t stand to see women in positions of power.”

The discrimination, Aslam and Anjam both admit, even extends to the lack of equality in pay; they reveal that oftentimes female radio jockeys are paid less than their male counterparts.

“It’s ridiculous and it needs to change,” says Aslam, “Women in our field need to demand higher salaries that commensurate with their experience and not accept low salaries just because of their gender.”

While both radio stations cater to niche audiences who enjoy a mix of English, Pakistani and Bollywood music, Anjam feels that local radio has taken a hit in the era of social media. “Everyone’s spending their money in the digital realm and contending for long-lasting presence on social media platforms. It’s a tricky time for radio these days,” she says, adding that the rise of social media influencers has also changed the game for radio personalities.

Aslam, on the other hand, differs. For her, although a visual presence is imperative, radio stands as a dependable medium which will withstand the test of time. “I’ve been on the airwaves for over a decade and my listeners have an association with me. It’s an enduring connection that has developed over the years. Having people approach you and tell you that they’ve grown up listening to you is surreal.”

“But you have to put your name and face out there as a radio jockey,” Anjam argues, “Brands these days are only interested in giving you business if you have a big following on social media – it’s all about the followers and little about the work. As a radio jockey, I need to have a consistent social media presence because podcasts and accompanying Youtube radio shows are going to catch on in Pakistan in the long-run. Radio needs a visual representation – it’s the future.”


Born To Live

By Sonya Rehman

Every so often one comes across stories of ordinary people who wind up doing the extraordinary. Defying the odds and societal expectations, they set out on unchartered territory to seek truth, purpose and meaning from new life paths that may seem rife with risk for some. But perhaps this is what makes these individuals so very intriguing, larger than life and heroic, in a way.

Absar Khan. Photo courtesy of: TACTACK

When Absar Khan was just three-years-old, he had a slim chance for survival. With symptoms that started out with frequent bouts of fever, he was soon diagnosed with a rare form of terminal Leukemia in 1987 and was given a few months to live. But instead of his parents taking him down the conventional course of treatment – which was far from guaranteeing a cure – Nusrat and Farhad, desperate for an alternative route, took their son to (a now renowned) Indian Ayurvedic physician, Vaidya Balendu Prakash, in Meerut, India.

And eleven challenging years after his initial diagnosis, 14-year-old Khan was in remission in 1998.

Photo courtesy of: TACTACK

“Throughout my childhood and my treatment, my parents would take me outdoors on picnics to the parks and on road trips. I used to be this little kid with long hair and would roam around in a red pair of shorts and it would remind everyone of Mowgli,” Khan says with a laugh. “I would see my parents really appreciate nature and I think that’s when my own innate awe for nature kicked in, making me always want to explore and do things in the outdoors. Even the Ayurvedic treatment I received for Leukemia were elements from the environment and nature.”

Now at 33, Khan reveals that he’s finally found the sweet spot of doing what he loves – making a living through his domestic travel start-up in Karachi. It keeps him centered.

Photo courtesy of: TACTACK

However, post-treatment, things took a turn for the worse and Khan battled drug addiction for a few years that lasted throughout his teens. “I became very rebellious at 13. I wasn’t rebelling towards my parents – they were very liberal – but I was just rebelling in society; I wanted to be in the outdoors. As a child, nature kept me engaged. Nature was never boring, it never let me down…I wanted to return to it.”

Unfulfilled with a “normal” routine, Khan resorted to drugs as a means to escape. But after seven years, while studying law in the UK, he realized he’d had enough. “I really started feeling the impact of it and began reflecting on my life. I remember thinking that it wasn’t sustainable and acutely missed my childhood personality. I felt I had drifted from who I was.”

After graduating, Khan began practicing law in England, but he still felt disillusioned and empty. The persistent pull to return to himself ran deep, and so he packed his bags and moved to Karachi in 2013 to start over.

In a bid to find some semblance of inner clarity, Khan embarked on a solo trip in Pakistan’s northern areas for a period of five months. Camping, trekking and hiking alone, Khan states; “I went everywhere from the Afghan border in the west, to the China border in the east and everything in between. It was my first adult experience of being in the wilderness completely by myself. I was disconnected from everyone; my family and my life. That’s when I had an epiphany. I thought; why can’t we do the things we love to do on a daily basis? Why can’t I make this my life?”

Photo courtesy of: TACTACK

The trip was a full circle moment for Khan, nature, he realized, had healed him once again.

Hence, in 2015, he co-founded a tourism company called TACTACK, along with his childhood friend, Imad Gharazeddine, a data scientist currently working for Google in Dubai.

Without a concrete business plan and barely breaking even in their early days, Khan reveals that his company has given him “a solid sense of fulfillment” since its launch. “At this point in my life, I feel I’m the closest to what I was like when I was a child. Nature has been a great friend.”

Organizing a number of trips across Pakistan, TACTACK currently comprises of a close-knit team that spearheads customized trips for individuals, educational institutions and corporates, alike.

“We don’t have a typical brick and mortar set-up. We work outdoors and are all a bunch of semi-eccentric misfits,” he chuckles.

From diving and exploration trips in Sindh, to conducting environmental mountaineering courses, organizing yoga retreats up north,  eco tours and workshops for students and schools, and more, TACTACK also works closely with community teams to promote community-based tourism in the country.

Photo courtesy of: TACTACK

“Whether you’re under the stars by the beach with close friends, or with a group of children learning to trek for the first time, it’s difficult to pin down my favourite experience so far,” he says, “I love being a part of people’s experiences I suppose, however, the most profound experience has to be camping and trekking alone. It’s incredibly stimulating.”

Photo courtesy of: TACTACK

When asked about the future of local tourism, Khan thinks that the domestic travel scene is positive, yet disconcerting at the same time. “Last year, Gilgit-Baltistan saw 1.5 million tourists – the numbers have drastically increased in the past 4-5 years but the rate at which the environmental degradation is happening…it’s pretty alarming. If we keep this going without taking any protective measures, we’re going to end up destroying Pakistan’s natural beauty.”

Hoping to continue working on issues pertaining to environmental conservation, Khan discloses that his dream for the future boils down to cleaning up Pakistan. “Literally, every single corner,” he emphasizes.

Given that his life has been anything but ordinary, Khan inherently believes that everyone has the power to steer the ship of their lives on their own.

Photo courtesy of: TACTACK

“Life is completely in our hands; we’re responsible for everything that takes place in our lives it’s up to us to choose whatever mindset or attitude we want,” he says, “We’re all here because we’re part of a grander system – we’re way more than flesh and bone. But we need to discover what our individual purpose is in this life. For me personally, we’re here for our own cleansing…we go through this life to ultimately discover the truth.”

The Friday Times

Is Plus Size Fashion Finally Coming To Pakistan?

By Sonya Rehman

Fed up with looking for clothes that fit, two thirty-something best friends from Lahore, Zenab Ali and Maryam Yousaf, launched their plus size clothing brand, The Rack Couture, in April (this year), in a bid to introduce body positive fashion to Pakistan’s thriving fashion industry.

Maryam and Zenab along with some of their The Rack Couture models. Photo by: Xpressions Photography

From semi-formal, formal and casual apparel, The Rack Couture caters to all shapes and sizes, all the while adopting a fierce anti-body shaming policy.

“We’re brainwashed into thinking that wearing black or vertical lines will make us look slim,” mentions Ali, “But the aim of our brand is not that a woman looks thin, but that she looks and feels beautiful.”

Maryam and Zenab. Photo by: Zahra Ali

Stating that she finds it surprising that some of the country’s biggest fashion brands haven’t yet tapped into the plus size market, Ali says; “Common sense dictates that if there’s a demand for a product, intelligent market leaders will try to capture that market. It’s baffling that body positive clothing hasn’t been given much thought in Pakistan when it has been embraced the world over! The Pakistani woman is curvy and bootylicious! Forget brands that have introduced size 14 and 16; those are average sizes. By plus size I mean 18, 20, 22 and even 24.”

From a recent The Rack Couture fashion shoot. Photo by: Xpressions Photography

“We’ve been inspired by women just like us; from our friends to our family,” Yousaf adds, “Every body is a good body – in our advertising campaigns we make it a point to feature average, curvy and slim physiques. We don’t use professional models; they’re ordinary women. It’s sad that local designers have this misconception that people don’t want to see curvy women modeling their clothes – they think it won’t sell. But they couldn’t be more wrong.”

Initially worried about being trolled online and facing body-shaming comments immediately after their launch, Ali and Yousaf reveal that the feedback since April has been nothing short of encouraging and positive.

Photo courtesy of: The Rack Couture

“When our Facebook page went live, we started getting emails from women who were thrilled to find a clothing line which catered to their sizes,” Ali says, “That’s when we knew we were doing the right thing.”

“It’s very easy to work with a silhouette which is thin and slender, but it’s harder to understand what flatters a woman with a fuller physique to enhance her assets and not to make her look thin. I’ve actually seen changes in personalities and body language before trying on the dress and after trying it on. It’s like magic,” states Ali.

While plus size fashion and the body positivity movement has continued to enjoy an unwavering footing in the global arena, the critics state that it promotes a damaging, unhealthy lifestyle (primarily giving rise to medical conditions such as obesity). Just this year for instance, plus size model, Tess Holliday, came under fire for posing on the cover of a popular fashion glossy’s UK edition.

“Body positive fashion is about embracing and loving yourself the way you are, there’s no rocket science to it,” Ali retorts, “The individuals who oppose body positivity are not enlightened enough to realize that plus size fashion does not support a lifestyle that leads to ill-health! We’re supporting a state of mind. All we’re saying is this; you’re unique just the way you are and feeling good about yourself is your fundamental right.”


A New Start-Up Provides Opportunities For Pakistan’s Marginalized

By Sonya Rehman

Muhammad Mustafa and Suniya Saadullah Khan are the very definition of a young ‘power couple’ driven by a dream to create long-lasting social impact in Pakistan.

Mustafa, a Stanford graduate with a decade’s experience in the local telecommunication sector, and Khan, a rocket scientist who once worked as an engineer with the Williams Formula 1 race operations team, were both drawn to social entrepreneurship during graduate school and longed to return to Pakistan to spearhead their own company.

Speaking of their young start-up, Mauqa Online (‘mauqa,’ an Urdu word  meaning ‘opportunity’), launched in December 2017, Mustafa reveals that it was during business school in Stanford, that the husband and wife duo mulled over a plan to put together a digital platform for the underprivileged who didn’t have access to employment opportunities.

Muhammad Mustafa and Suniya Saadullah Khan with a few members of their Mauqa Online team. Photo courtesy of: Mauqa Online

To make ends meet throughout college, Khan mentions that she worked as a cleaner in a cinema, and as a waitress to cover her tuition fee and that it was this experience which made her realize the stark difference between manual labor overseas compared to Pakistan, the latter of which she considers to be unethical and exploitative.

“A majority of the domestic staff in Pakistan don’t have fixed working hours and the concept of overtime pay doesn’t even exist here,” she says.

Currently only operating in the capital, Islamabad, in addition to the city of Rawalpindi, Mauqa Online matches domestic workers with employers after meticulous background checks on both sides.

“When we first launched our start-up, it was more of an experiment to determine if there was any demand for domestic helpers,” Mustafa states, “So when the first customer called for a booking, we didn’t have a single employee! So I went to the customer’s house and worked as a Mauqa helper ironing clothes for three hours. That is when Mauqa Online was born.”

Muhammad Mustafa

Funded by Stanford’s Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), the start-up has served 500 customers, crossed 10,000 hours of service and currently manages a team of 20 fully trained domestic helpers – a number they hope to increase to 500 by the first half of the new year.

“All the helpers on the Mauqa platform are our employees,” Mustafa states, while speaking about the start-up’s business model, “We conduct rigorous trainings to ensure all customers receive a high level of service. Since we are an on-demand service, customers book us for only a few hours or a few days…think of us as the ‘Uber of domestic helpers.’ We charge the customers for the number of hours they have used our service, and in return, we pay our helpers a monthly salary. Depending on performance (which includes ratings by the customer), our helpers can earn more than Rs. 25,000 per month.”

Suniya Saadullah Khan

States Khan; “Our customers rate our helpers’ service after a job – our back-end system ensures a customer won’t be matched with a helper they previously rated poorly. The same rule applies for our helpers as well.”

“There’s a lot of growth potential for a start-up or new service in the country,” Mustafa replies, when asked about the young couple’s decision to move back and set up shop in Pakistan, “There are so many basic services that do not exist, and anybody offering them will find a ripe market here.”

“This is home for us,” Khan adds, “I’ve had the privilege of studying and working abroad and that was a fantastic personal growth experience. However, I never wanted to be part of Pakistan’s brain drain and kept exploring opportunities where I could use my skill-set to help others achieve their personal dreams. With Mauqa, we have currently enabled over 30 people to increase their monthly income by over 100% and become financially stable – this is the best validation of our decision to move back.”

But while start-up culture is thriving in Pakistan, the stakes are always high for young entrepreneurs ditching the financial stability of full-time employment.

“It was now or never,” Mustafa says, “The shackles of high pay and stable careers are difficult to break. But we both thought that if we didn’t take the leap of faith, there would never be the right time, nor the right opportunity. So we just dove in.”

While the local start-up ecosystem still has its fair-share of shortcomings (primarily the lack of local investors), how can young Pakistani entrepreneurs be better prepared before launching their own start-up companies?

“Don’t underestimate the power of design thinking,” Khan says, “This approach is central to how we operate at Mauqa Online – we spent more than three months understanding our consumer’s needs and requirements (being a two-sided platform this includes understanding the mindset and pain points of both our paying customers, as well as our helpers) and the insights we gained caused us to pivot multiple times from our original idea. Most entrepreneurs are so fixated by their idea of a perfect product that they do not conduct any meaningful customer research before launching – that’s a sure shot recipe for failure.”