Peering into her webcam, all the way from her Brooklyn apartment, Pakistani journalist and documentary filmmaker Fazeelat Aslam seemed to possess all the makings of a great storyteller: inquisitive, eloquent, empathetic, and observant – qualities that saw her climb to the top of her field, producing for global news and media giants like The New York Times, Al Jazeera, PBS, VICE, and HBO. “As a journalist, I believe I need to put a magnifying glass on why these travesties occur, and how often the root causes are the same: poverty, government corruption, and class stratification,” she remarks. “I choose stories, not to [cultivate a] big viewership or to feed a hungry audience, but to see if I can expose an injustice that, if remedied, would make the world a better place for somebody.”
She rose to international prominence in 2012, following the release of Saving Face, a passion project she had coproduced. The HBO documentary short, which follows the stories of female victims of acid attacks in Pakistan as they seek justice and pick up the pieces of their lives, went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short and an Emmy Award for Best Documentary.
In an individualistic, capitalist society, there is a story that ‘successful people’ like to tell themselves: ‘I got where I am because I am uniquely talented and brilliant and worked harder than everybody else.’ Nobody really wants to admit that they’ve also benefited from enormous social stratification.
“In an individualistic, capitalist society, there is a story that ‘successful people’ like to tell themselves: ‘I got where I am because I am uniquely talented and brilliant and worked harder than everybody else.’ Nobody really wants to admit that they’ve also benefited from enormous social stratification," Pakistani journalist and documentary filmmaker Fazeelat Aslam says matter-of-factly.
This is the one story the Wellesley College graduate never told or sought to validate throughout her 11-year career. In fact, it is the very narrative she wakes up everyday, bright and early, to deconstruct. That is why she embedded herself deep into Taliban territory to document the rising tides of Islamic extremism in the city of Peshawar, and ventured into the inhospitable circles of Christian fundamentalists in America to uncover the deliberate misinformation machine designed to dissuade women from pursuing abortions, and brought Eric Garner’s story to life a year after his murder. “I was often reminded [at Wellesley] of my place in society, which was beneath those with more privilege than me and, more importantly, above those who were less fortunate,” Aslam reflects. “The injustices others faced always felt more appropriate to fight for over my own, that’s why I moved back to Pakistan to become a journalist, right after I graduated.”
In her motherland, where she relocated in 2007, Aslam reported for National News and Dawn News. It was in Pakistan that the Lahore-born, UK-bred Oscar found the first narrative thread. Aslam doesn’t fit the archetype of the transcultural, well-travelled journalist heralded by Christiane Amanpour. Aslam has experienced a distinct kind of depaysment in her home country – whereby she is the ‘rich girl in class’ by virtue of her cosmopolitan (dubbed Western) values, which is often seen as a sign of wealth in developing Muslim countries. “I found it exceptionally difficult to integrate there. I speak the language and understand the culture. But because I did not go to the same schools as my peers, because my family did not raise me there, my social standing was always in question, and my worth was compromised. People looked at me differently based on what I was wearing and what car I was driving,” she recounts.
I would go off into the field and report on human rights issues, and then, on weekends, I would return to a social scene with elites who were not only ignoring those human rights abuses, but were sometimes involved, directly or indirectly, in perpetuating them.
In her native Pakistan, Aslam’s distinguished education translated to socioeconomic privilege, placing her in a social stratum that was both a vantage point and a bad seat, shielding her from the very people whose stories she was entrusted with. “I would go off into the field and report on human rights issues, and then, on weekends, I would return to a social scene with elites who were not only ignoring those human rights abuses, but were sometimes involved, directly or indirectly, in perpetuating them,” she says. “The upper class barely interacts outside of their stratum, and, much like many elite communities globally, they believe that people are in the socio-economic situation they are in, because they deserve to be. [Even] women from lower classes have little to no access to the kind of healthcare or social benefits women in upper classes do.”
For six years, Aslam had to observe and report on Pakistan from that enclave, wriggling herself out into the real world every chance she got, before joining VICE. “The reason I left Pakistan was I realized how little power I had working in that environment,” she says.
From then on, Aslam started piecing together the biggest newsflash of all time: the greater story of humanity, from Haiti to India, and beyond. She revisited stories from her native Pakistan, in projects like her 2010 Emmy and Alfred I. Dupont award-winning documentary, Children of the Taliban, and investigated modern day slavery in the country for HBO’s VICE series. She broadened her reporting to issues ranging from racial disparity in US law enforcement and gang violence in Los Angeles, to America’s fake abortion clinics. “It’s amazing how similar we are as people. I have felt the same vitriol from extremist religious factions like the Taliban as I have from extreme right, anti-choice, anti-abortion groups in America,” she says. “I have seen kids with PTSD in South Central LA that compare to the children on the frontlines of war zones.”
It’s amazing how similar we are as people. I have felt the same vitriol from extremist religious factions like the Taliban as I have from extreme right, anti-choice, anti-abortion groups in America.
Aslam is a neo-polymath and creative multipotentialite, but above all, she is a committed feminist. And despite her complicated experience in Pakistan, Aslam’s feminism is still very much deeply rooted in her unique identity, encompassing both her ethnic heritage and her liberal values. “I celebrate the branding shift from #MeToo to #TimesUp in the feminist movement. I’m an intersectional feminist, and the label #MeToo echoes the same issues that ruptured 2nd wave feminism, in that, as women, we are all in this together and have all experienced the same things. Do you really think Gwyneth Paltrow, as a beautiful, White, rich actress, has suffered the same as a black trans woman in America?” she exclaims. “Right now, I feel like I am being given a platform and a voice because people in positions of power want to ensure they’re appearing ‘woke.’ ‘Passing the mic’ to a Brown Muslim feminist is an easy way to do that. Check in with me when I feel like they’re not just passing the mic, but passing the power.”
Photo: The Cut
Her feminism took her where few feminist journalists have gone before: fashion. In addition to being a critically-acclaimed journalist, Aslam is also a bit of a fashion icon in New York City’s social scene. “My fashion sense evolved from my mother’s. During my childhood, my family mostly lived between England and the States, but my mother always wore traditional Pakistani clothing,” she recounts. “Some of her peers looked down on her and considered her provincial because she didn’t dye her hair blonde or wear western clothing, but she took great pride in her clothing and how it represented her identity. My fashion is an expression of my identity.”
But wearing that identity like a fashion accessory, devoid of its true ethnic character, was never an option for Aslam. She became a newly-minted fashion entrepreneur when she launched her online vintage boutique, Jani Vintage. “Claiming back South Asian sartorial heritage is something to which I’ve given a great deal of thought. In Pakistan, most designers mimic Western styles but remain incapable of breaking into the Western market,” she says. “Meanwhile, so many American designers have been and continue to adopt or co-opt the South Asian aesthetic; our silhouettes, styles, and textiles are thriving. The simple, modest, sheaths and pajamas are at peak popularity, and very few designers from the motherland are owning it.”
Not many female journalists can combine an impressive portfolio and a big fashion persona – women in many professions are expected to dress down and subdue all evidence of their femininity, not always for cultural or practical reasons, but because they are presumed frivolous, less intelligent, and less capable. Most women comply by these tacitly agreed upon rules because many can’t even afford that first bad impression. “As a woman, to transition from a ‘serious’ profession, like documentary [filmmaking], to the ‘frivolity’ of fashion, is seen as a real step down by a lot of people,” she says.
As a woman, to transition from a ‘serious’ profession, like documentary [filmmaking], to the ‘frivolity’ of fashion, is seen as a real step down by a lot of people
Throughout her career as a journalist, Aslam has unearthed little-known stories and annotated eminent ones, encasing them in her very own brand of storytelling – that instinct to make her subjects, and their struggle and its context inseparable and interdependent. “Most reporters are not striving for some objective ‘pleasing to all sides’ reality, but rather reporting to their individual bias. Truth is, both, the simplest thing in the world and the most difficult thing to get at," she says. "When you’ve hit it though, it’s like a punch in the gut, a primal knowing."