Shaneira Akram - Philanthropist, Social Media Star And Our National Bhaabi
Starting off, we hope you’re safe and well and life hasn’t been too disrupted by the global pandemic and these strange times we find ourselves in. How have you and the family been coping?
This year has been a crazy one that’s for sure. Life as we knew it changed so dramatically. It’s almost as if the world reset itself. At the start it was very scary as we didn’t have enough information about COVID and how it was spreading. The lockdowns were even tougher, distancing ourselves from family and loved ones with contact to the outside world only through social media and our phones, many people working from home, entertaining the younger kids 24/7 and forcing ourselves to reinvent our lives within the boundaries of our homes.
As a family I had one of my sons home from college and our little 5 year old so that was a bonus. I think it’s safe to say we definitely grew stronger as a family and all participated in coming up with new ideas to keep the morale high in the house. Wasim bought a pizza oven and we all learnt how to make pizza and had fun nights decorating our pizzas with our favourite toppings. We stayed fit together by walking, cycling and swimming every day and at night we would play board games, watch movies and have picnics in different parts of the house like the roof. There were good times and there were some not so good times. But I’m proud the way we came together as a family, communicated when we were feeling low and all put in effort to lift each other up and stay positive. The world has been a scary place this year but I believe in the power of the human race and I know there are better times coming soon
The global pandemic and lockdowns meant that in recent times many of us found ourselves on our phones a lot more than we normally would be. Have you found social media helpful during these difficult times or has it been a cause of stress?
Absolutely I do. Social media has been amazing during lockdown. It was one of the only ways to really connect with the outside world. I loved seeing people invent new ways to entertain each other during the lockdown. Anything from cooking shows to virtual concerts, it was incredible to watch what people came up with. I also loved watching new stars being born, showing the world videos of their phenomenal talent. It was much more entertaining than television and the best part is you can control what you want to see. It was awesome to see so many celebrities take to social media and connecting with their fans. Social media is like many things, if you use it for good, don’t over expose yourself, create and look at accounts with substance and don’t overdo it, then it can have a positive effect in your life.
Even though social media can be seen as a tool that people hide behind and replace real life with, I actually think social media may have made many people feel less lonely during the lockdown. There were many people who were quarantined alone, or in bad relationships, or in hospital and I think social media and the internet would have given them a better connection with people, friends and help if needed.
Digital spaces and the internet are now a ubiquitous part of our lives but you still find those who resist joining social media etc. Were you quick to accept that digital spaces and social media are now a part of our lives or did it take some getting used to?
I feel it was a long time ago now. But when you’re a part of the Wi-Fi generation that’s how it is, fast! When I did sign up for my social media accounts I didn’t want to just use it to promote myself, I wanted to use it to connect with the outside world, and let people see the person I am, to try to bring some change the way people think, send good vibes to out to the people of Pakistan and use my platform to help people who need it.
I can imagine that the internet was tremendously useful for you when you first moved to Pakistan, especially when it comes to keeping contact with your family in Australia. Did the internet and social media make the move easier for you?
Yes very much so. My family was with me every step of the way, by video messaging, sending photos and FaceTime we are always able to be in touch. Not only that, when you have children, they grow up so fast and through technology my family has seen Aiyla throughout her life and also me with my nieces and nephews. Also it helps a lot when Wasim is away with work, he gets to call us on WhatsApp or FaceTime whenever he wants and that helps him not get so homesick.
You’re a bit of a celebrity in Pakistan, married to one of the most famous men in the country and we can tell you’ve embraced the spotlight, using your voice and your platform to raise awareness about issues that impact all of us here in Pakistan. Was it always your goal to use your presence on social media that way or did it just sort of happen?
Ha! I wouldn’t say I’m a celebrity but I do like the feeling that the country is warming to me. I never wanted to portray myself as anything that I wasn’t. I’m not a model or an actor or a film star or a designer, I’m just an Aussie girl from a small town in Melbourne, Australia that got to marry the man of her dreams and came to live in an incredible country. I knew the role I was taking on, but I didn’t want anyone to think I was something that I wasn’t. My social media accounts are there for people to see who I really am, engage with me directly, and to voice my opinion when I believe something is not right or fair.
Part of the reason that Pakistanis feel they can relate to you so much is your presence on social media platforms and the fact that you don’t shy away from expressing yourself about things that matter to you. Is there a downside to that or do you like the direct connection it gives you to the people?
I love it. I love being a part of the country’s voice. If we want change then we all need to stick together. Social media really allows us to get heard. Look at all the movements and protests that have come about, subjects that were never even talked about or acknowledged are now being reached to children as young as 10. We are connecting on every level and the youth is speaking loudly. I love it. I love being part of this social and cultural revolution. I love taking a stand for people who can’t, I love that we can get a beach cleaned, talk about breast examinations, protect children from predators, protest for women’s rights and show solidarity for people we have lost. I love being a part of Pakistan, full stop. Every day, even if we are moving slowly, we are taking steps in the right direction and we are doing it together.
There’s a lot of debate in Pakistan currently about how much freedom people should have on the internet and in digital spaces. We’ve seen apps and platforms like Tik-Tok, banned and then unbanned. How do you feel about that?
I think we have a responsibility to the people of Pakistan to protect them. We have to remember there is over 20 million children not in school and unemployment is very high. So putting restrictions on some platforms and social media accounts is necessary. I even support many stands to censor content, not because it’s wrong because there are many people in Pakistan who are vulnerable and might perceive it in an immature way. Saying that, we are all still fighting for the freedom of speech and expression. With more people being educated the more we can tolerate and join the rest of the world. We have to remember that social media, TV and films have so much influence and power within our population, so there is a greater demand for responsible content
You have a young daughter who is probably not using social media yet but will definitely be doing so in the next few years. Have you thought about how you will monitor that as a parent and what you advice you want to give your child about navigating social media and digital spaces?
I think as parents our job is to protect our children anyway we can and that definitely includes the internet. The best advice I can give is to raise your child to be aware of dangers like cyber bullying or online predators. We must educate our children and set a solid foundation for them by teaching them important ethics and morals, to know the difference between good and bad so that when they are faced with a situation you can trust that they will do the right thing. I don’t think we should hide anything from our children, children are very smart, I think it’s better to explain to them how the world works and let them find their way. An open strong line of communication between you and your child is the best defence against anything that could hurt them.
The internet is an endlessly useful place but there’s a dark side to it with trolling and the fact that the anonymity that it provides often allows people to reveal the worst of themselves. How do you deal with trolls and if you could say something to them, what would it be?
Although I try to respect everyone’s opinion and believe most people are coming from a good place, I don’t entertain bitter or very judgemental comments. I think by doing that you are throwing fuel on the fire. My advice - Let them be, it’s not what you said or did that makes them react, they are obviously not very happy people in general, try to ignore them. If you know what you are posting is sincere, then there should be no reason for anyone to troll you and if they do then that’s their problem not yours.
You do a great deal of work with the ‘The Akram Foundation’. What sort of work has your organization been doing recently and how do people sign up if they want to be a part of it?
‘The Akram Foundation’ has worked very hard in the past working on ground level to improve the lives of Pakistanis, but has now moved into a new direction with Wasim and I working closely with other charities and NGO’s to help them increase awareness, support and donations. Just by following our journey and participating in causes you are helping these charities get maximum exposure which in turn will help generate funding and relief efforts.
Wasim not only works to boost sports and fitness in Pakistan, he is currently the World Ambassador for diabetes and also has joined the fight to help end polio in Pakistan. I have been working with the ‘Fred Hollows Foundation’ raising awareness and direct funding to give people back their sight. I also work closely with the National Institute for Child Health (NICH) in Karachi which is a 500 bed paediatric hospital that gives life-saving treatment to over 1 million children every year, completely free of cost.
If anyone wants to help, support or donate to any needy charities, please follow me or Wasim as we post almost daily about how people can get involved in helping people in Pakistan and work for the betterment of our countries future.
I’d like to move the conversation away from the internet and charity work for a little bit and talk about you personally. You are Pakistan’s favourite bhaabi and one of the main reasons seems to be your positivity and openness. Does it get exhausting though, constantly living your life in the public eye?
Oh that’s very sweet of you to say. No not exhausting at all because I’m not acting, I’m being myself so I don’t have to pretend or change myself, I am just who I am and if people want to say hello or connect with me then that’s all fine as long as boundaries are respected. I feel the attention I get is usually always positive and just people showing me love and that’s a beautiful thing to have. Thanks everyone!
But I’m quite a private person anyway, I don’t put up everything I do on social media, only the things I would like to share with everyone. When you are an actor, film star or model there are always a lot that people demand to see from them, and I can understand that could be a little exhausting, always having to look their best and be in character, but I don’t have to be anyone but me and if someone doesn’t like that then that’s fine.
One of the things we’ve noticed you’re very passionate about is plant based food. How have you managed to do that living in Pakistan where meat is such an integral part of the food culture and how in the world did you convince your Lahori husband to embrace a plant based diet?
Very passionate!! I love being meat free, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. Not only does nothing have to die for me to live, I feel so liberated when it comes to food. I don’t just stick to the comfort food anymore I try everything. Pakistan has been an amazing country to eat plant based food as we have so many different types of daals and channas, just strong flavours and incredible spices to add to food. I feel lighter, fresher and healthier. I’m never hungry and I’m more in tune with my body and my mind. But the best thing is that everything I eat adds to my health and makes my body feel great. Everything you eat has its own job to do, and now I know how to self-medicate by eating specific foods; for instance if I’m tired, I eat more spinach, kale, cashew nuts, beans or lentils for iron. I eat to live but because I love plant based foods so much I also live to eat! I get best of both worlds
I have not eaten meat for almost 4 years and Wasim is coming up a year now (no pressure from me he decided to stop eating meat on his own) We are the best versions of ourselves, and we encourage our kids to try more vegetarian dishes which gives them a wider variety of food to choose from.
You recently made your acting debut in a film that was supposed to be released this year but has been delayed because of the global pandemic. How was that experience? Would you do it again?
I loved it! I only have a small part but it was so much fun to work with such talented actors in Pakistan. I would definitely do more movies if I ever get asked, although there is a lot of down time where you have to wait for set changes and that can be hard as I am a person who is always busy. Sometimes I wanted to come out and ask if there was anything I could help with while waiting for the next scene hahaha!
You always seem to up to try different things, from social work and activism to acting. What’s next for Shaniera Akram?
I’m am completely devoted to my charity and working for the betterment of Pakistan. If I have free time it goes to that. I have so many ideas and plans that I would like to get moving so hopefully next year will be a better year than this one and we can start working on repairing the damage from 2020. So many people have suffered this year, from mental health to domestic violence, we have children who are being abused and people suffering from diseases when they don’t need to be, girls still not in school, women fighting to be heard, rising levels of unemployment, babies who need mommies, water that is unclean and litter flooding our streets and oceans. There is never a moment of rest when I comes to helping this country and if we all did our bit we would be just that bit closer to our goal. Time is now, we need to give our country everything we have got if we want a better future for the next generations
INTERVIEW: GULMEENAY SETHI
WARDROBE: YASMEEN JIWA
JEWELLRY: SUNDUS TALPUR
PHOTOGRAPHY: HASEEB SIDDIQUI
COORDINATION: ATTIYA ABBASS