Shahida Shah, wife of the Pakistani ambassador in Egypt, invites us into her home to chat about her charity work, empowering women and her beautiful Cairo residence.
CAIRO - 12 December 2017: Shahida Shah likes it when people think she is Egyptian, “because I am Egyptian.” Wearing a traditional Pakistani outfit and wrapped in a yellow dupatta, the wife of the Pakistani Ambassador Mushtaq Shah warmly welcomed us into her house in Cairo, which is tastefully furnished with a mix of traditional Egyptian and Pakistani handmade carpets and artifacts.
Shah first arrived in Cairo in 2003, accompanying her husband who was then deputy head of the Pakistani mission. Back then, she never imagined she would return 12 years later and still recalls her Egyptian friends telling her, “once you drink from the Nile, you are destined to return.” Shah is heavily involved in charity work.
She showed Egypt Today around her Cairo home and spoke about challenges facing women in both Egypt and Pakistan, the cultural similarities between the two countries and, of course, her design sense.
Egyptian and Pakistani-made artifacts and carpets hanging on the walls of the house of the Pakistani ambassador in Cairo. Photo by Ahmed Hussein/Egypt Today
What changes have you seen since you left here in 2005?
There is a huge difference, believe me. Back then, for example, there was only one Carrefour, located in Maadi. But now, there is City Stars, Mall of Arabia, Arab Festival Mall and so many other shops. Also, then, nobody knew Sixth of October City, Sheikh Zayed, Qatameya; only the people who lived there did. Zamalek was then more exclusive to diplomats.
What’s your daily routine in Egypt?
Before my husband’s assignment, I used to have more space on my daily agenda, I had very good Egyptian friends I used to have my morning coffee with every day. Also, my husband and I used to travel around Egypt every weekend. There is no place in Egypt that we did not visit, be it Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada, Luxor , Aswan and many other places. Nowadays, my routine is a bit different and more formal. I have a busy life as I am a part of different active groups like the Pakistani Women’s Association. I am a mother to four children, three of them studying abroad, while my little daughter is studying here in Egypt at the Pakistani International School.
Do you think the wife of an ambassador shares the responsibility of conveying an accurate image of the host country?
Without the ambassador’s wife’s support [the mission] is not possible. Sometimes, my husband assigns me important delegations, and shares with me certain issues that are not top secret. As for conveying an accurate image, I have an example about Pakistani women; they are mistakenly represented in the European media as being similar to their conservative Afghani [neighbors], who wear burqas. When we were in Hungary, I used to go out in jeans, and my husband would tell the media: “Look! Do you think she is like the Afghanis? She is a common Pakistani woman.”
Classic dining room, with the design of the walls made by French and Moroccan artists several years ago. Photo by Ahmed Hussein/Egypt Today
How would you describe Egyptian women?
Egyptian women have strength, they are brave and intelligent; they know how to run the house, bring up children, earn money, and they never stay home asking for help. If they have some education, they would do some work. If they are not educated, they seek other businesses which might [include] selling vegetables or garments on the streets. Honestly, I see women participating in Egyptian society much more than men. Women here are not [inferior] to men, they are both equal.
What about women in your country, are they independent?
In my country, they are improving. If you ask me about my mother’s time, less women had education. Education is the main key for women to gain their rights. If you get one woman educated, then you are educating the whole country. We now have women who are doctors and pilots and they are even joining the army. Benazir Bhutto is the first woman in a Muslim country to [take on the post of] Prime Minister. Now we have a quota for women in the people’s assembly.
What do you think Egypt and Pakistan have in common?
We have a few similarities as well as differences. Like Egypt, we, in Pakistan, believe in the family system, we respect elders and love children; this is our culture. We also have some common things in our cultures like henna drawing, jewelry and some types of food.
You are the head of the Asian Diplomats’ Spouses Association (ADSA) in Cairo; what kind of activities does it run?"
The ADSA was established in 1975 to promote Egypt-Asia mu-tual cultural cooperation, and it constitutes 28 member Asian countries. The ADSA’s president is elected for a one-year term. The association is mainly concerned with empowering women and children in Egypt by funding associations and supporting them with the required equipment. The associations [we help support] include the Children’s Cancer Hospital 57357, the Nile River School, the Light and Hope Association for blind girls, Dar el Hanna Orphanage, Women’s Health and Improvement Association and Tora House for disabled women. Our main fundraiser activity is the annual charity bazaar that was held on November 11.
How does ADSA empower women?
I believe this is strongly fulfilled when the ADSA funds associations like the Nile River School in Giza’s Ayyat district, where we help them with equipment like computers for the children. We visited a school recently established by the Women Health Association and gave them more than LE 20,000.
What’s the goal of the annual charity bazaar held in Cairo?
For five consecutive years, we held the bazaar with member countries selling traditional handmade Asian products and performing cultural shows; the revenues are used to help underprivileged people in Egypt. We offer NGOs tables for free to display their products, and [they keep their] revenues.
Why is this event being held annually?
Because we live here, in Egypt, and we consider ourselves part of its society.
How was this year’s turnout and how much revenues did you bring in?
This year’s Egyptian turnout was superb and we had Suzy Shoukry [Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry’s wife] as the guest of honor of the bazaar. I printed 200 posters and sent them to all international clubs, UN offices and all embassies, not only Asian ones. We also witnessed huge participation, with 20 Asian countries and 15 NGOs partaking in the bazaar. We sold nearly 2,000 entrance tickets for a total of LE 17,000 and the raffle tickets for LE 9,730, without counting the revenues of the products sold. All the money collected will go to the associations we deal with; we never remove organizations off our charity list, we add new ones. The feedback was very positive. Egyptians love Asian culture, they love our dresses and women love the long scarves that we call dupatta in Pakistan. I gave out my new dresses, which I never unwrapped, to be displayed at the Pakistani stall at the bazaar.
How do you select the associations that receive ADSA funding?
The association members meet monthly to discuss charities’ future plans and vote on the associations that will receive the funds after field visits. The visits are important to verify that the association to receive the donations is a well-established place and that our money goes to the right hands.
Were you engaged in charity work before joining ADSA?
Yes, in my country I was the education secretary of the Pakistani Foreign Office Women Association (PFOWA), a charitable organization based in Islamabad, where we arrange an annual fair, provide welfare for the deserving among employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, curricula books for their children, and medical assistance. I have [done] so much charity work, and I learned a lot about charity from PFOWA.
A side of decorations picked by Mrs. Shahida Shah after she received the house two years ago, where it was "in a terrible condition". Photo by Ahmed Hussein/Egypt Today
How does it feel staying in a house that is considered a historic monument in Cairo?
Our house in Cairo is registered as an antiquity, so it was very difficult to make changes in the house. I [went] crazy when I arrived as the house’s condition was terrible and I have a sense for decorations, so I decided to do minor decorations step by step while maintaining the house’s original condition.
Who decided on the decorations in your house?
Most of these decorations are my decision because I traveled a lot, and I used to buy artifacts from different countries. Many of the Pharaoh statues placed in the house I [had] bought in the past when I visited Egypt were original ones, you cannot find them now at any price. I brought crystals and alabaster souvenirs that I got [from] my travels to Luxor and Aswan, handmade Pakistani carpets, new tables, changed the lampshades and painted the walls. Other than that, a few tables, furniture [pieces] and sand tableaux [paintings] belong to the house; the wall drawings were made by French and Moroccan artists in the past.
What traditional Egyptian foods do you like?
I love Egyptian food, especially koshari, ful and taameya, kofta we call it kebab and sambousek.