Aurat Raaj: Empowering Pakistani women through AI
This month, She Loves Tech is featuring Saba Khalid, founder of Aurat Raaj and finalist of the last She Loves Tech Global Startup Competition. Aurat Raaj is a startup that uses culture and technology to bring courage, direction and hope to women in Pakistan. Through the production of videos, articles, blogs and other means, to popularize knowledge, empower them, so that they can make better life decisions. The company also has AI technology that has shaped the chatbot Raaji, which can target needs and services in a timely manner, providing women with the help they need in time to help them realize that they could have had a better life and made an important contribution to society.
You gave up your career to create a platform positively impacting Pakistani women, was there a specific story that encouraged this decision?
“There are multiple instances that had frustrated me as a Pakistani woman and journalist. Having been through the murder of my childhood friend who was a progressive, working mother who had just moved back to Pakistan and having gone through a very abusive relationship myself, I knew I needed inspiration and motivation to create a better life for myself. I needed role models and in search of these role models and wanting to write about them Aurat Raaj was born. A few months before I started, I was working on an extensive story about Qandeel Baloch. She was a social media star who was honour killed. I was trying to understand these complex topics such as toxic masculinity, shame, honour and patriarchy. Our content, for the bot and animated series, has touched upon much of this content.”
What does “Aurat Raaj” mean?
“Women Rulers or the rise of women. Its based on a satirical Urdu film that came out in the 70s. A director of the time imagined a world where a nuclear explosion led to men’s role changing to women and women’s role changing to men’s. It was a way to give insight to the men of that time about how women feel every day in Pakistan. Although it was a box office bomb, but unfortunately, it became the groundwork for feminist content & films.”
Why did you choose to depict your character Raaji as a survivor of honour killing?
“Honour and shame are topics very close to my heart. We are constantly battling the two as Pakistani women. Either we are bringing our families honour, or we are bringing shame. There is never any in-between.
When I had been writing the series, I had been at the time thinking to myself that if I were to live my life exactly as I pleased and with the choices I truly believed in, would I also be honour killed? The only difference between me and the many women who have been subjected to honour crime –was that my father did not depend on me or my sister for his personal honour. But born in a different family, I could have been sacrificed for my choices and to uphold society’s honour.”
What role do you think technology can play to improve women’s conditions?
“Information. Positive information. Uplifting information. Supportive information. And it’s the 24/7 availability of information. In our case, with the volunteers that support Raaji, technology has allowed women to contribute their knowledge to those women who need it. For e.g. in the middle of the night (Pakistan time), when someone messages Raaji, and it is an emergency (abuse, anxiety or mental health-related concern), one of our volunteers studying to become a psychologist in Kuala Lumpur takes over the conversation. She has a virtual internship that allows her to learn and grow and understand what it means to be a psychologist without having to leave her campus. And the person on the conversations gets immediate help at a time they need it the most. If this had been a call centre, we would not have been sustainable or scalable. Tech allows us to impact and do social good 24/7.”
What do you believe are the special strengths of female entrepreneurs?
“Our rise and our strength. All the women entrepreneurs around me are so strong. They have seen such incredible lows (fundraising can be a nightmare for our ideas + lack of representation in tech is frustrating + multiple responsibilities make it so hard) and yet they have not broken. We keep pushing forward.”
What support do you think women entrepreneurs need to create a more equal and diverse entrepreneurial environment in Pakistan?
“Confidence. We need to give young girls confidence. It took me so long to find people who just believed in me. Wholeheartedly. And they gave me the confidence that whether I succeed or fail, I will come out of it okay on either side of this realm.
We also need to say the uncomfortable. All the tech conferences and panels in Pakistan have 90% men in them. If I were to openly vocalize that we need SDG5 gender equality, I lose sponsors, clients, friends. And it is always thought of as activism for my personal gain. Because I want to sit on the panel. We advocate for change, so the girls in the audience see its possible for them to become leaders. For them to see how too can be opinion leaders. We have to be willing to say the uncomfortable because how else will change come? How else will we make a space for women?”
Given the recent international recognition that RAAJI encountered, do you plan to expend your chatbot to new countries?
“Yes. With a grant provided by Tech Camp Cultural Vistas, we have partnered with an Indian startup and will be testing Raaji in New Delhi. I think the issues that Raaji deals with are very similar in many South Asian countries. Taboos make it impossible for girls to have conversations about their bodies. And Raaji can break these taboos in multiple languages and in different regional contexts.”
How important is having the right team to be successful?
“I think if your company culture is positive, building the right team becomes easy. You don’t have to search for the right people. They are attracted to your vision and your way for working. Building a team for me was the scariest part of Raaji. But it has been the most rewarding part of it. Each one of us in our team embodies the different traits of Raaji. We enjoy working with each other. We wish each one of us grows. We motivate each other.”
What is the most significant thing you have changed your mind on in the last year?
“That something is ever wasteful or wasted. Each project, each relationship or friendship, each travel, each conversation, each failure, has contributed something to your journey. You are where you are because of all good and bad that happened.”
What difficulties have you met and how you overcome them?
“Some of my personal relationships have really taken a beating. I am exhausted most of the time and my dear ones have to see the not-so-chirpy side of me. This year, I am trying to work on them the most. I’ve dealt with a lot of financial hardships and funding problems and they have slowed down the speed at which I wanted to grow my work. The stress of these things have added a few wrinkles here and there, a few pounds, but I think it’s a fair exchange for what I have gained in return — learning and emotional growth.”
She Loves Tech is a global platform committed to building an ecosystem for technology, entrepreneurship and innovation that creates opportunities for women. We house the world’s largest tech startup competition focused on women-led or women-impact businesses.