“No girls in our family go to coed schools,” he told her, but eventually she wore him down. She is the eldest of six children, five girls and one boy; her brother is the youngest. “My father was always on the elusive chase for a son,” she said. Her parents believed that girls should be educated and permitted to work, but they were also strict. Until Sharmeen left for college, she had to be home by nightfall.
Her maternal grandparents moved from India to Karachi shortly after Partition, inspired by Jinnah’s democratic vision. Her father’s parents migrated from India to Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan, in 1947, and then, in 1971, during the Bangladesh Liberation War, fled to Karachi. Her grandfather worked for a shipping company. Sharmeen’s father, Sheikh Obaid, began a textile firm, and the family lived in a spacious house in Defence, a wealthy enclave for the élite. Sheikh, who died in 2010, was a loud, warm man with a ribald sense of humor, and he and Sharmeen’s mother, Saba, frequently hosted business guests. Sharmeen and her siblings were accustomed to sitting down to dinners with buyers from Europe, Asia, and North America, and the family accompanied him on trips to the United States. Sharmeen grew up swimming at her parents’ sports club and competing in tennis tournaments. On Sundays, if her father was not travelling, the family drove around the city to try new eateries.
One morning, as a driver took Sharmeen to school, they stopped at a traffic light, and a young girl pressed herself against the window, begging for money. “She had the most beautiful eyes, and wispy hair in front and a little bit of dirt on her,” Obaid-Chinoy recalled. “Her hand was just stretched. She didn’t ever say anything.” For the first time, Sharmeen realized that the comforts she had always taken for granted were uncommon in Karachi. “I was sort of an angry child,” she told me. “I asked my parents a lot of questions about things I saw around me and things that I read.”
At home, she grew increasingly upset about the place of women in society. “I would often hear from my extended family, ‘So-and-So couldn’t finish her studies and was married off,’ ” she said. A girl in her neighborhood play group was engaged at sixteen and had a child less than two years later. “I realized that we accept things for women because that’s just the way they are,” Obaid-Chinoy said. “It made me question what my rights are, and what I will be ‘allowed’ to do. And that became such a troubled word for me. Why should I be ‘allowed’ to do something? Shouldn’t it just be taken for granted that I would be studying, or going to work?” One afternoon in the family’s kitchen, a female relative told Saba that she was unlucky to have so many girls. Obaid-Chinoy retorted that her mother was actually very lucky; her mother quickly removed her from the room. Obaid-Chinoy’s classmate and friend Masoomeh Hilal recalled, “If anyone messed with us, she would be the first one to stick up for her friends. And she was extremely focussed. If there was something she wanted to do, she would find a way to do it.”
Saba, a quiet, intelligent woman, had wanted to be a journalist, but she married at seventeen and stayed home to care for the children. When Sharmeen was fourteen, Saba suggested that she channel her outrage into writing for local newspapers. Saba’s uncle, who worked as a journalist at the News, encouraged Sharmeen to write opinion pieces about the rights of girls to go to school and of citizens to vote; later, she wrote investigative pieces for the newspaper Dawn. Obaid-Chinoy recalled one article about a government office that sold passports to Afghan refugees, and another about students who smoked weed—a taboo subject that shocked the parents. Obaid-Chinoy’s most memorable story was about the sons of wealthy feudal lords at schools in Karachi who ran a bullying ring: they went to parties with guns and, if they weren’t allowed inside, fired them into the air. They would beat up students, tear their clothes, drive them around for hours, and shave their heads before releasing them. “I went undercover and named and shamed them,” Obaid-Chinoy said. The morning the article came out, her father shouted for her to come downstairs. Her family’s name, interspersed with profanities, had been spray-painted across their front gate and down the street for blocks, presumably by the boys she had written about. Obaid-Chinoy was energized. Her father, she recalled, told her, “Amplify that voice. Speak the truth, and I will stand with you."