Unquiet Women - Asma Azhar

Inspired by Max Adam’s original work, Unquiet Women, through this series Dr Hafsa Ahmed aims to share narratives of remarkable women who immigrated to New Zealand. These stories are rarely told, but each one is unique. Hafsa hopes these stories will bring Asia closer to New Zealand by enabling us to see through the eyes of others and nurturing connections.

In the seventh piece of the Unquiet Women series, she shares the story of Asma Azhar, a doctoral student and production assistant on RNZ's Widows of Shuhada project.

“Back in the time, my teacher filled the wrong spelling for my name – this was very common. And when I grew up, I realized. But my father said who cares?” And that is how Asma’s official name is spelled as Usma. It was quite late to change the spelling of her name and in Pakistan this would be a very difficult process to proceed with, so Asma decided to leave it as Usma. But I will be referring to her as Asma.

Asma arrived in New Zealand in 2016 and is studying towards a doctorate in linguistics. Image: Supplied

Asma came to Aotearoa, New Zealand in December 2016 as a doctoral student in linguistics; however, when she arrived from Lahore, Pakistan she was expecting her third child. In a dramatic turn of events, her PhD supervisor was about to leave on sabbatical for six months, so she decided to take the brave step to come to New Zealand. Asma’s supervisor decided not to return to Aotearoa and instead accepted a job in Sweden. “Fortunately, my decision was right,” says Asma as she reflects. While overcoming challenging circumstances faced through her PhD journeys, Asma has showcased resilience.

Over the past five years, she has continued to show strength and move forward. With her background in teaching and as an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), she is using her skills here in Aotearoa to unify and support ethnic communities in Christchurch. With her fluency in three languages – Punjabi, Urdu and English – she is passionate about community service. Asma is also involved with UC’s Pakistani Student Association which focuses on supporting the student community to encourage connections.

Asma was awarded the University of Canterbury’s Blues award for Community Service (2020-21) and a Civic Award from Christchurch City Council in 2021. She was described as “a determined young Pakistani woman and an advocate for the ethnic and wider pan-ethnic communities, she has collaborated with multiple organisations to provide smoother pathways to employment, improve wellness and preserve language and cultural traditions.”

Securing a role as Diversity and Engagement Officer at the Office of Ethnic Communities/ the Department of Internal Affairs (now the Ministry of Ethnic Communities), she continued to juggle study, work and family life especially managing the responsibility of being a mother to a special needs child.

Asma empowers and supports ethnic communities through her work and commitments. Image: Supplied

But life changed after the 15 March 2019 terrorist attack at the mosque. There were friends who she lost; it was a difficult time. She wanted to support the community, this meant she became very closely involved with supporting the victims and their families, especially her fluency in different languages meant she could communicate with many of the widows. Asma took on more responsibility by becoming a key link between various groups and government agencies involved. Later Asma got involved as a Production Assistant in the Widows of Shuhada project, an eight-part podcast documentary series featuring four of the women left widowed by the attacks.

Driven by her experiences, Asma sought opportunities to support the ethnic communities and played a key role in Christchurch’s Ethnic Communities Skills Build Programme - a project designed to smooth the pathway of migrants and international students into employment in New Zealand. Through the programme, international students could attend workshops, develop their CVs, and seek assistance from career counsellors.

Her resilience and strength paved a pathway for her to secure a full-time role at the Ministry of Primary Industries as a policy analyst while she also continues to finalise her PhD thesis.

Asma appreciates her life in Aotearoa, New Zealand and describes her life by saying “a metamorphosis: becoming a better version of me every day while breaking all social stereotypes.” Her advice to anyone who is here as an immigrant is to “value your transferable skills and embrace them. You need to find your strengths, and potential to deliver without having societal pressure.”

- Asia Media Centre