What It Means To Be A Malang And More: A Conversation With Nadia Jamil

"Love is not love until it's done. It is a verb. I cannot love my child in my heart and not feed him and clothe him and hold him and listen to him and do all the active things" - Nadia Jamil speaks to Sara Javed Rathore

What It Means To Be A Malang And More: A Conversation With Nadia Jamil

Nadia Jamil has always been a person that radiates absolute kindness– which she did when I first met her for arranging a TedX talk. The second time she was speaking at the event– on stage, vibrant, full of life. The third time I met her was for this interview for Women’s month– she managed to gracefully, passionately, tell me all that I needed to hear, perhaps.

When we first sat down, I chatted with her about a series I am working on– an artist a month, mostly independent, interviewed so they get traction for their work.

The interview started off with me sitting on the leather settee in her room, as she sat, cuddled up on the sofa with a beautiful, red shawl covering her.


Interviewer: There's two parts to this question. Introduce yourself as a person, and then as an artist. And what made you choose the creative medium, acting and drama, that you decided to choose?

Nadia Jamil: I'm Nadia Jamil. Identify as a woman. My pronouns? Her, she.

I'm 52 this year. I'm at that age where my identity is less important to me than it used to be, in describing who I am. My identity is important but describing who I am is more difficult because I'm wanting to get more and more away from the labels. You know? We've become this society that is hyper-specific.

As for what I do? Everybody asks, the first thing is, ‘What do you do? Are you a housewife? Do you work?’ As if my activity is going to be the benchmark on which I'm going to be judged by this individual. I defy description. I enjoy being a woman. I love being a mother. And not only to my kids, but to the children I work with.

So there's that aspect of me. I love being a teacher. I teach drama and I teach language, and I teach expression and self-confidence. And I also have workshops on thriving, the nature of thriving.

[We talk about art, then. She tells me about her father– her eyes almost welling up as she describes the experience of listening to Bulleh Shah, Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, and Baba Fareed, to Pablo Neruda, and how it inspired her and her brother.]

And my father had a romance with life. He was a romantic, very romantic and involved with poetry, with language, with his wife, with his children, with, you know, his siblings, with nature, with birds.

So he made everything around him seem artistic. Then there were a lot of baithaks, mushairas, that I grew up with.

[She showed me a picture of her and her brother, cuddled up alongside Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. She lists off the names that inspired her– Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Habib Jalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Zehra Nigah.]

So I learned a lot about beauty and aesthetics of art, from a very early age. I also learnt about activism, because my mother is very politically active. She had us going to Hudood Ordinance marches, marches for MRD. So I grew up with these women, Asma Jahangir, my mother, my grandmother.

I grew up with art, with strength, with power, with a sense of social responsibility. But, because I was sexually abused as a child, even though I was a privileged child from a privileged background with a lot of love from the age of four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and then later on seventeen, eighteen and nineteen, a pattern developed where I would allow abuse.

Some aspect of you normalises abuse. Because of that, there was a dark side to me. Which was insecure. Very, very, very frightened and insecure of adults.

When I was 17, there was so much rage, so much disgust with the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, of the elite, of the double standards I was living with.

I was very lost and I started working at the Missionaries of Charity. That was a turning point. I think my first turning point came when I started acting because I was acting in school plays and I was good at it because I didn't have to be Nadia Jamil. Nadia Jamil was somebody I didn't know, I didn't understand. She was like a lost child that I didn't know how to deal with.

That was the only time I was fearless. When you're pretty, and you're charismatic, and you're a mix between this high energy, loud voiced person and this shy, vulnerable child, you become somebody fascinating, mysterious.

Art, I think acting saved my life. Acting also gave me this sense of being good at something because I had zero self-esteem. But suddenly I'm reciting and there’s clapping, and that became my cue. The ovation, the daad, the recognition. That validation became very important.

17, 18, 19. I was allowing myself to be really badly treated by this individual and I started working with these children. That was my game changer because for me, my passion became working with children. I think at that time I was working with children because I could not heal the inner child within me, so I worked with these amazing children and they were all just happy.

I continued working with children. I continued acting. These were the two things that side by side, I kept doing really held me together. The only thing I didn’t work on was ‘me’.

It was when I got cancer at 48 that drove me to a place when the people closest in my life at that time abandoned me and left me. And I use the word abandoned now carefully because it seemed like abandonment then. But they left. They didn't want to be in my life anymore. And they chose a better path for themselves

Interviewer: And what does it mean to be a thriver?

Nadia Jamil: So a victim is someone who's helpless. A survivor is someone who doesn't die. Who is coping. And then there's a thriver. Who is just flourishing.

To be a thriver and in different aspects in your life, means understanding that different aspects need more thriving sometimes than others.

If I describe Nadia Jamil today, she is a woman who is very sure of herself. And very content with her journey. Not content with herself because I'm a work in progress. And I can always be better. But definitely content with my journey. And I can happily say now, “I am proud of myself.’ It was difficult for me to say anything good about myself for 44 years. I think I was 50, after I'd done the NLP course, and I was able to say, ‘ I like me’. I was bald with chemotherapy when I saw my face in the mirror and I first thought, ‘I like that face,’ So this relationship with me has taken a long time.

And I like it a lot, because I'm deeply spiritual and I have a strong faith in Allah. And I truly believe, “Which of your Lord's blessings do you deny?” The blessing I denied the most throughout my life was me.

By the time I got cancer, I'd been married to the person I'd fallen in love with, I'd had wonderful children, I'd had a successful career, I was seemingly an empowered woman, but I was inwardly insecure, petrified of adults and really, really, lacking on impulse control, I had intrusive thoughts, and the attention seeking also didn't really go away at all because that child had not gone away, the child had not grown up.

So I think for me when I talk about what it means to be an empowered woman today, I stuck one candle on my birthday cake when I was 50.

It was when I got cancer at 48 that drove me to a place when the people closest in my life at that time abandoned me and left me. And I use the word abandoned now carefully because it seemed like abandonment then. But they left. They didn't want to be in my life anymore. And they chose a better path for themselves.

But the child in me just saw abandonment. And the child in me just saw the same pattern of, ‘the adult will leave and bad things will happen to my body’. And that particular day I remember when this particular adult, very, very close I was to– left. It was my liver scan day and they had seen a shadow on my liver and I was petrified.

I had a complete nervous breakdown. Which, unfortunately, my 13 year old had to witness.

I think there was only uphill after that. If I had to show my face to my kids, if I had to show my face to myself, there was only uphill after that. And uphill meant looking for resources. Now, earlier, the resources had always been people outside me. Because, remember, the rescuer is always outside you. Now there's no people.

It's COVID. First lockdown. I have cancer. I'm in Cambridge. No flights. Nobody can come to me. My mother is the only person who came. She came after my surgery was over, my second chemotherapy. She walked into the room… and she was my queen.

And then she stayed with me for eight months, but I was completely broken.


Interviewer: And how did you go ahead with that? What route and path did you choose?

Nadia Jamil: It's like deconstructing Nado happened. I started grabbing the resources to reconstruct Nado. But little did I realise that was the first time I'd ever been constructed. Otherwise I'd just been like a breeze blowing around.

It was deconstructing, it was the breaking down of me. That forced me to create myself. That forced me to grow up. That forced me to look for the resources that will rescue me. And the resources that rescued me were my faith, and knowledge. Knowledge about my mind. Knowledge about my patterns, my behaviours.

[She talks about labels in mental health and I nod, alongside. How difficult it is to detach your identity from a subset of, ‘this is who I must be’.]

I think learning NLP from Aliyah (Mohyeddin) is something every single human being on this planet should go through. I think the first time she told me that there's nothing attractive about being an adult woman speaking like a child. No, she's just unequipped. She's just not an adult. She is just not taking accountability. She's not responsible for herself. She was firm, empathetic.

I used to think being a malang, being spiritual, means having disassociation with money.

Not realising money is what buys me the freedom to be who I want to be, where I want to be and how I want to be. As long as I'm asking someone else for money, my self-respect will be compromised. I have to be the adult in charge of me in order for me to respect me. I embrace abundance, not money. But the abundance that comes with the work I do.

My aim and my ambition is to make a better world for children.

So I learned another magnificent thing about being a woman. How amazing boundaries are. How beautiful it is to say no.

Also, getting rid of the anger. How freeing and liberating was that?

And nobody is responsible for my happiness. The only person responsible for Nadia Jamil's happiness is Nadia Jamil. I became a better actor. I became more disciplined. I became more focused. I loved my adult voice.

Another lesson I'm learning. Attachment. Choosing to be self-aware. Choosing to love the gifts that you have been given. Starting with yourself because you are a gift that you have been given and then everyone else, everything else is this fantastic opportunity.

Every second is pulsating with gifts for you. And I have learned this from the children who I work with at orphanages, who have been abandoned by families or orphaned. They have taught me. This capacity to lean into the slightest amount of joy.


Interviewer: When you're talking about these orphanages and working with these students was one of my most pressing questions, but can you share some insights into the most pressing challenges facing children's rights in Pakistan today?

Nadia Jamil: There are no children's rights in Pakistan. Pakistan is a 76-years-old country, with a zero year old child protection policy.

Pakistan is the country where the entire nation saw Fatima Fariro die on CCTV and we were told that her inner organs, trigger warning, had become enlarged because of the amount of times that nine-year-old child had been raped. We saw the rapist get out of the bed behind her on CCTV while she writhed and writhed to her death.

And we did nothing.

Rizwana, my angel Rizwana. Rizwana is 14. The judge's wife (Soumia Asim) beat her, broke her limbs. There were maggots coming out of her brain, in her arms. Burn marks all over her body. One lung had collapsed. You know, she loves her wig, her new wig, and her new clothes, and her lipstick, and she loves dressing up, she loves smelling flowers.

She said to me once, ‘She's out on bail.’ And I looked at her, and I said, ‘Here, my daughter, I am helpless. I am helpless. So let me talk to you about where I can facilitate you. Let's talk about what you can do. Let's not go there.

These children growing up right now need mental health support. Why am I the only one out there, pro bono, saying, I want to work on solutions for them? Why isn't there a team of people running, saying, Nado, we want to be with you for this?

Aliyah Mohyeddin once said to me, ‘I don’t use the word hope anymore, I use the word wonder.’

I used to say I hope there will be a child protection system in Pakistan someday. I wonder what the child protection Pakistan will have one day looks like.

I have worked with children whose parents have had 15 kids. Only to make all of them servants and slaves. As if the onus of the poverty of this nation lies on the shoulders of 7 year olds, 5 year olds, 10 year olds, 14 year olds.

Where are the responsible adults saying enough is enough?

Why do two people come out for the marches, that we march for children? There are no journalists. There are no media personalities.

I have to beg actors and actresses who are so passionately speaking about the wrong in the world. I have to beg them for one line for the children in this country. This is happening in your own backyard!

[We are both teary-eyed and crying at this point. At the absolute depravity of the world we live in.]

Kids learn from what they see you do and how they see you behave.

So for me, my job is to zip my mouth, and listen. Listen to them, because these kids have no one interested in listening to them.

[We talk of what to do if you do notice trafficking, or a child being forced to beg– contact the Child Protection Bureau, and keep the child company till they arrive. It is no Ritz Carlton, she says, but the children are thriving and they’re working to create a better environment.]

They're all given an education. There's computer studies, there's vocational training.

If I am given permission by the Punjab government. I want the children to learn that thriving is more than just going into classrooms and learning, and doing computer studies, and thriving is being taught a mindset.

Being empowered mentally to know that the world is my oyster. ‘Why can't I be the next Prime Minister or President of this country?

Interviewer: And how do you gain the strength to work through this?

Nadia Jamil: For me, the straight path is this only, right? Not the path of those who have gone astray. I know who those are who have gone astray. I know I don't want to be associated with hypocrites. Love is not love until it's done. It is a verb. I cannot love my child in my heart and not feed him and clothe him and hold him and listen to him and do all the active things.

It's the same thing with my relationship with God. It's the same thing with my relationship with myself. So what acts have I done today to love me and what acts have I done to make sure that I am not cheating myself in my relationship with God? But I have faith. And I have faith because, like Joe Dispenza says, I am the placebo. Tawakkul. I am the placebo which means tawakkul.

Interviewer: So how do you ensure your advocacy efforts resonate across different cultural contexts?

Nadia Jamil: At Dunya TV, when I had to host the morning show, I had to speak to people. Live, three hours. I had to step out of my elite burger bubble. I learned one of the laws of NLP is that the person with the most flexibility will have the most influence.

Everybody is coming to their ideologies and their value systems from their own personal experiences.

My job is to do what I can do in my circle of influence.

I've created my own value system, in which it doesn't matter what culture you belong to, or what religion you belong to, or what background you belong to, I've realised and I've learned I can have similar value systems with people across the board. You know, and there are people who want a kinder planet across the board.

I want to be an authentic Nado. Even if that means I don't have millions of followers. Because I've seen that people who do have millions of followers… are so trapped by the need to play the game of what a celebrity star looks like that they will not come to the orphanage, that they will not give five minutes for a one line statement to say, take care of our children, that they will not come to those marches. I don't want to be there.

Sara Javed Rathore is an author and poet from Lahore. Her first collection of poetry, 'Meraki', won the Daud Kamal Presidential Award from the Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2020. She has also published another collection of poetry titled ‘Obituaries for the Dead and the Undead.’