Tanzila Khan was born in Sialkot, Pakistan, and a physical disability has confined her to a wheelchair since birth. Her activism began early in her life, as she was on the receiving end of discriminatory practices. In Pakistan, those with disabilities are often relegated to a lower status and their needs and desires are rarely taken into account. When she was sixteen, Tanzila wrote her first book, A Story of Mexico, and has since published her second book, a novel titled The Perfect Situation. The profits from both books have funded disaster relief for victims of the Pakistani earthquake, for disability awareness, and female empowerment.
She faced discrimination in school, as she was not allowed to participate in theater, social activities, and philanthropic clubs. “I think earlier when I was in my school, it was the identity that I was given and that was the girl on a wheelchair. And during that part [of my life] I realized that this doesn’t sound right to me, it sounds too hopeless, it sounds too upsetting and sad—not just for me but for the person who is addressing me either. This whole circle of sadness didn’t appeal to me that much. So, I thought that I have to change this identity. So at that time, I considered myself, I looked at myself and said to myself that what do you have, what can you do? And the only things that I had were my hands, so I had to use my hands. So, deliberately I pushed myself towards reading and writing.”
According to Tanzila, her primary motivation is the simple joy of being alive. She feels that she has a great responsibility to impact the youth of Pakistan, focusing not only on disability rights but also access to education and resources. She has partnered with the British Council, Global Changemakers, and Oxfam to further the reach of her causes. Tanzila has also used her platform to press the Pakistani government for wheelchair accessibility in all government buildings. She describes herself as a “soft-skills trainer” for development and the corporate sector and is an international motivational speaker.
Tanzila believes that her college experiences helped her crystallize her focus on disability rights. In her TEDx talk, she explains, “I wasn’t allowed to take part in any activity because the faculty feared that I might face some physical obstacle. They had their fears, while I had my own: someone was killing the spirit inside of me… And then again, again, again, I was not allowed to be part of many activities. Again there came a point where I decided to break the line. I declared, ‘Fine—you can have your own events, you can have your own theater, you can do whatever you like; I’ll have my own… It took me quite a while to realize that my cause, my passion, my subject was inside me, was with me all this time, and it took me so long to get there. This is the reason I was created.”
At that moment she began to formulate the idea of her own production company called Creative Alley, which now trains and empowers the community through events and projects. It provides the youth of Pakistan and across the world a platform to share artistic works. The group’s primary initiative is a “youth capacity-building workshop” taught by Tanzila called Let’s Get M.A.D. (Make a Difference). “Creative Alley is a platform for everyone and anyone out there who has the talent, who has the skills, but who didn’t get the chance.” It acts as a springboard, encouraging and assisting individuals with disabilities to exhibit and distribute their work across the world.
In her work as a speaker, she advises, “Leadership involves initiatives. So in whatever walk of life you are currently in, take an initiative. Because in later years, initiative will define your identity.
Lead image courtesy of Be Bold People.