ISLAMABAD: Saima Saleem made headlines last year when she addressed the UN General Assembly with a fierce speech in support of the right of Kashmiris to self-determination. All cameras were on her as she sat behind the Pakistan nameplate at the assembly’s hall and read her address written in Braille.
Born in Lahore in 1984, Saleem lost her sight around the age of 17 to a rare genetic disorder of the eyes that gradually causes loss of vision.
An international humanitarian law graduate of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, holding a master’s degree in English literature from the Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore, she became Pakistan’s first blind civil servant when she joined the foreign office in 2008.
The stereotypes, prejudices and challenges, especially institutional, that Saleem had to face as a woman and a person with a disability did not discourage her, and with family support, she broke barriers, set precedents and paved the way for others.
“I was the first visually impaired who joined not only foreign service but the civil service of Pakistan. After that it gave encouragement to a lot of blind students to aim for that and aspire to do something that they always wished to,” Saleem told Arab News in an exclusive interview last week.
Before Saleem’s admission, persons with disabilities could only be employed as civil servants in sectors such as information, post, commerce and trade.
During her exam, Saleem objected to the rules: “I told them that civil service is about competence, merit and equal opportunity. If I manage to secure a good position and am eligible for joining foreign service, then there shouldn't be a bar on the basis of my disability.”
Once the results were announced, she was the sixth-best candidate in Pakistan, and the Federal Public Service Commission moved a summary for the prime minister to amend the rules.
“The civil service rules were amended,” Saleem said. “That was something I think was a moment which gave me a lot of satisfaction and it opened up the window for joining civil services for [those] who would be joining in the years to come.”
Determined to achieve her career goals, Saleem reached the world of international diplomacy and now serves as a counselor at Pakistan’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York.
At the same time, she knows her role does not end there, as she is in a position to help make the world more accessible through her example and advocacy.
“Most challenging thing for me was, if I may say it, a challenge to make our society and the system understand that it is not your disability that matters rather it is your ability that counts,” she said.
Saleem and her brother Yousaf Saleem have the same vision disorder, and both received the support of parents who wanted them to be educated and contribute to society. The sister became Pakistan’s first blind civil servant, while the brother in 2018 became the country’s first visually impaired civil judge.
“I want to be a source of awareness for so many people around who would need more information and understanding of the challenge,” Saleem said.
Her speech on the human rights situation in Indian-controlled Kashmir — the world’s most militarized zone and the largest region occupied by security forces, where the local population has for years accused Indian troops of violations and targeting civilians — shined a spotlight on her.
Her UN address came after an Indian delegate leveled accusations against Pakistan, with which India has a longstanding dispute over Kashmiri territory, as both countries rule it in part but claim it in full.
The speech was a part of Saleem’s professional duty, but she said it also resonated with her convictions, education and own study, as she has recently finished writing a book on the status of human rights in Kashmir from a legal point of view.
“I, as a diplomat, was doing my official commitment and responsibility,” Saleem said. “Perhaps what made it a little special was my own passion to work for them (Kashmiris) and my own conviction that they are experiencing one of the gravest human tragedies that is unfolding in the 21st century.”