Ayesha Amin feminist

Ayesha Amin | The Pakistani Feminist Who Loves Breaking Taboos

When Ayesha Amin, a renowned Pakistani women’s rights activist, first saw a condom in a workshop, she refused to touch it. “I felt so embarrassed that I just wanted to disappear,” she says. Her shame, however, turned into curiosity and this moment helped Amin realize that talking about sex and reproduction shouldn’t be taboo.

In 2018, Amin founded the nonprofit Baithak: Challenging Taboos, which has reached 300,000 women across Pakistan with workshops on family planning, menstrual health and gender-based violence. Having witnessed one of the worst climate disasters in Pakistan’s history, Amin has also been a fierce advocate for climate policies that address the needs of young girls and women.

Together we talk about:

→ her dogged persistence to never stop dreaming

→ her daring acts of resistance to patriarchal norms

→ dismantling harmful menstruation myths

→ why there has to be more than just 2 women out of 50 men in climate meetings.

To learn more about Amin’s work, check out Baithak’s website, Baithak’s Instagram account or Amin’s Linkedin profile.

TIP: Help de-stigmatize menstruation by talking about it with your close ones.

📺 Watch our interview on YouTube.

📻 Listen to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts.

📖 Or read our conversation here:

What inspired you to become an activist fighting for the rights of women?

I started my activism journey for myself. I was born and raised in a very traditional patriarchal family where girls and women have a very set path for their lives. They are not allowed to dream beyond that path. For example, women are allowed to go to school and college but after that they are supposed to get married and raise kids. You cannot dream to prioritize your career, to travel or decide what kind of partner you want to marry, when you want to marry, or whether or not you want kids. A lot of the work that I do on bodily autonomy is inspired by my own experience of navigating these societal norms.

How did you resist these norms?

My legal name is Aisha Mehmud but I prefer to use Ayesha Amin. Growing up I noticed that only men in my family were using the family name. I found that very odd so in my college I started telling everyone that my name is Ayesha Amin. This was one way of resisting the idea that men carry the legacy of the family.

That was courageous!

I say this every time that to dream is to resist. I was told that I could not dream anything beyond the gendered role that was set out for me. I used to tell my family that one day I will run away with my passport and I will travel the world. Everyone in my family used to tell me “Good girls don’t say they will travel the world.” It did not make sense to me. I continued dreaming and this was an act of resistance against what was set out in those norms.

Baithak sessions, source: Baithak

One of your life-changing experiences was also an exchange program in the US. What did you experience there?

When I got the opportunity to go to the US, my family wasn’t excited but my mother supported me. I was very young (21 years) and I never traveled outside of the city alone. The exchange program changed how I saw the world. At home I was always told: “If you go out alone, it’s not safe for you. You have to be accompanied by a male member.” In the US, I managed to do everything by myself and that gave me a lot of confidence. I realized that in my country the infrastructure, culture and safety is not built in a way that is inclusive for women. 

Did this new experience get you interested in the reproductive health and rights of women? 

Yes, a lot of things have changed in those four months. I used to volunteer with a health center on the campus and once they sent me to Kansas for a conference. I walked into a session and found a seat in the front row. When I found out that the speaker was talking about sexual health and preventive sex, I was so embarrassed! I thought I have committed a sin by being there and listening to words, like sex, condoms and pleasure. Then all of a sudden, the speaker started passing condoms among the students. When my turn came, I said I didn’t want to touch it. I wanted the floor to open up and I wanted to hide away from people.

Did you stay in that session?

Yes, I did, for 1.5 hours. I was too embarrassed to even stand up and walk away. But that shame and stigma slowly transformed into curiosity. I attended a few more workshops and I realized that knowing about your own body, safety and protection is important for young girls so they can protect themselves from exploitation. It’s so important for their physical, mental and emotional health and well-being. I even got upset that I learned about these things so late in my life, especially given that early and child marriages are so common in Pakistan.

There are many women in their 30s and 40s who still consider many of these topics a taboo.

That’s true and that’s why I founded a grassroots women-led nonprofit Baithak: Challenging taboos. Since 2018, we’ve been working with girls and women around these stigmatized topics which are so important for safety, health and well-being. Over the past 5 years, we have done sessions for women on family planning, menstrual health and gender-based violence across Pakistan and have reached 300,000 girls and women.

Talking about reproductive justice in small groups, source: Baithak

Do you get any feedback from these women?

Women frequently tell us that they have a feeling of solidarity and belonging in these women circles where they can openly talk about topics that are considered a taboo. They suddenly see that other women are dealing with same issues and that they don’t need to be ashamed of anything. Women also tell us that our workshops helped them improve their health.

In what way?  

There are a lot of harmful myths around menstruation in Pakistan. The most common myth is that women should not bathe during their period. They are told that if they bathe, their period will stop and it will lead to infertility. But if they don’t bathe, they will compromise their health. Women are also told that they cannot eat eggs, meat, fish or drink milk during their period. In our workshops, we help them understand how these myths are created and how they can have a safe menstrual cycle.

Besides advancing reproductive health and rights of women, you’ve also been very active in climate justice. When did you realize that you also want to work on the climate?

In 2022, Pakistan was hit by one of the worst climate disasters in the country’s history. The floods affected 33 million people, out of which 8 million were girls and women of reproductive age and 650,000 women were pregnant. We saw women delivering babies on a road side and also women having miscarriages because they had to walk for days to reach flood camps. We saw women having unintended pregnancies because of no birth control pills. We saw young girls and women having urinary infections because they didn’t have any menstrual products. At that moment, we got involved in the climate response.

What did you do?

We provided girls and women menstrual products and pregnancy kits. We were and still are in a constant dialogue with the government on how to create gender equitable climate crisis response. We want the government to ensure that women have access to menstrual products, contraception and healthcare and that they are safe from gender-based violence.

What was the overall response from the public?

I remember that when we were fundraising for menstrual health products there was a whole Twitter campaign saying that “If you are giving pads to women, also send shaving kits to men.” This really struck me. Women don’t choose to menstruate. Who would choose to menstruate during a climate disaster? There were many men who asked us: “Why women even need contraceptives in the flood camps?”

Because they need them at home as well, right! Is there any way how women can break the menstruation taboo and ask the authorities to provide them menstrual health products?

It’s very uncomfortable for a woman in a conservative society to go and ask for a pad or say that she was harassed, especially when all the government response officers are men. We need more women in the flood response. I would like to shift the responsibility to the government and men on how they can use their privilege to create spaces where women can speak openly about their bodily autonomy.

Ayesha Amin talking about reproductive justice at a local school, source: Baithak

Do you have any suggestions for policy-leaders with regards to climate action plans?

Climate action across the world is gender-blind. It doesn‘t account for the needs of girls and women. We need more women in the decision-making. I was in a meeting after the floods and there were 50 government officials and three people from two community-based organizations. They were all men! None of them talked about the needs of women. It‘s not their priority. If I and my colleague were not in that room, the response would have been gender-blind.

If you were speaking to the Minister of Health, what would you tell them?

  1. Coordinate with the Ministry of Climate Change.
  2. Prioritize the needs of girls and women during climate disasters.
  3. Engage more women in climate action decision-making.
  4. Appoint female officers in the disaster response.
  5. Ensure women have access to contraceptives, menstrual products and pregnancy kits.
  6. Include regular visits of female social welfare officers to check on the safety of women.
  7. Ensure referral systems so that women who are harassed can refer for support.

What an extensive list! (laughter) But it definitely makes a lot of sense.


How do you as a climate and reproductive justice activist see the link between family planning and climate resilience? 

Family planning is about making an informed choice on whether you want to have kids, how many kids you want to have, when you want to have them and how you want to space them. But it‘s also about how many kids you can provide a good standard of living, which is tied with the resources that nature has provided. One thing that the world is worried about is our growing population and how we are running out of resources. In Pakistan, we‘ve seen food and water shortages and prices going up after the floods. We are at a complex intersection of so many crises at one time and we need to take integrated approaches.

Ayesha, thanks for the interview and good luck with pushing for a more holistic approach to climate change!

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