The Rule Breaker
Alumna Farhana Nazir shares the gospel and empowers women in Pakistan.
By Nicole Pride
Spend a little time with Farhana Nazir, ThM ’04, and it becomes apparent very quickly that she is a humble woman. However, make no assumptions about Nazir’s mild demeanor. She has spent her entire life living against the status quo. For that, this single Christian Pakistani theologian, who is also the dean of studies at Gujranwala Theological Seminary, has been dubbed “the rule breaker.”
From the beginning, Nazir has been an outlier in her country. Growing up in a predominantly Islamic society where approximately 96 percent of the population is Muslim, Nazir was born into a small religious minority of Christians. Four generations ago, her family converted from Hinduism.
“It’s a miracle that Christianity exists in an Islamic country like Pakistan. But it is a very tiny community that has little or no political protection,” says Nazir. “But, the Christian community exists. Thankfully, we are free to profess our faith. It’s not like other Islamic countries where you are not free.”
Nazir’s Bible teaching and preaching career began as early as 17. By foot, Nazir would travel to Pakistani villages to spread the good news and deliver messages of hope. Her rousing sermons and home visits inspired young girls and women to dream bigger and bolder.
“I had a passion to preach and encourage young women,” says Nazir. “I would encourage many girls to attend Bible school. Nobody was coming for those girls, who in many cases were unable to read.”
By foot, Nazir would travel to Pakistani villages to spread the good news and deliver messages of hope.
The school Nazir refers to is the United Bible Training Centre (UBTC) in Gujranwala, Pakistan. The school was originally established for the wives of ministers to pursue theological studies. Bible school was the traditional route for women. Men went to seminary.
“My vision was to educate women for their personal development, growth in faith, and maturity,” says Nazir. “I wanted them to have courage to use their gifts. It breaks my heart that women have so many gifts and sometimes they are so silent that they don’t use them.”
To that end, Nazir created training programs at the UBTC to help women transform their lives. During her 10-year affiliation with the organization, she watched many of the girls she recruited mature physically and spiritually. Over the years, Nazir was a mentor and lecturer who taught classes on discipleship, course development, and mentoring. She also led seminars and workshops for women.
Nazir’s courage to live outside of societal norms was largely due to her father’s encouragement. Her father, a minister who served in the Presbyterian church for 22 years, was in favor of education for women and empowered Nazir to lead.
“My father truly saw me. He realized my gifts of music, teaching, and reading. When I was a little girl, I used to teach things in the house. He understood and knew me very well,” Nazir fondly recalls. “More men in Pakistan need to support women. They should acknowledge women’s gifts and use that without prejudice and without cultural bondage.”
When Nazir was very young, her mother passed away. It was customary for Nazir’s father to remarry and since he had not, the cultural expectation was for Nazir to care for her father as a young woman. However, her father released her from the obligation and encouraged her to develop her gifts of preaching and teaching.
Nazir continues, “My father was different. He never followed traditional roles for men. He once said to me, ‘Farhana, I’m ready to take care of myself. I don’t have a wife but I don’t need one now. So, just go ahead. You are my daughter.’”
“It breaks my heart that women have so many gifts and sometimes they are so silent that they don’t use them.”
“He was the first man I knew who was ready to just live alone and to support himself, to cook for himself, do everything,” recalls Nazir. “To him, a daughter was not born to simply do the traditional responsibilities.”
With her father’s blessing, Nazir pursued education.
While Nazir preached and recruited pupils for UBTC, she too took classes and received a diploma in Christian Education from the Bible school in 1998. She continued to teach various courses at UBTC through 2006 while earning three additional degrees. In 2000, she earned a master’s degree at the University of Punjab where she majored in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan; a year later Nazir obtained a Master of Divinity degree at the Gujranwala Theological Seminary; and in 2004 she received a Master of Theology degree from Princeton Seminary, where she concentrated in religion and society. She continued her theological education by earning her second Master of Theology degree in 2007 from the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity in Scotland, where she majored in Christianity in the non-Western world. Nazir obtained her Doctor of Philosophy degree at the same institution in 2013.
However, while in the midst of pursuing her theological education, the person who supported her the most died. Her father passed away in 2006.
Nazir recognizes her father’s death was one of the most challenging times in her life. Not only did she have to deal with her grief, she had the pressure of conforming to other’s expectations. As a single woman, it is taboo to live alone.
“Many young women don’t live alone when their parents die, but I did and I’m still living alone. I don’t need to bring anybody to stay with me,” says Nazir. “Marriage is viewed as a kind of protection in Pakistan, providing stability to a woman who is unable to care for herself. But for me, that was not my situation. I’m not saying that I don’t care about marriage, but it never happened.”
Nazir admits that her journey has not been easy, particularly dealing with the loss of her parents, helping her brother through a difficult situation, and experiencing some health challenges. However, she proclaims that her journey with God has been wonderful. She acknowledges that it was only through God’s grace that she has been inspired, protected, and received great strength “to keep going and accomplish many things.”
Today, Nazir is involved in many endeavors. In addition to her role as dean, a position she has held at the Pakistani seminary since 2014, she is exploring her interests in poetry and Christian music, particularly as it relates to the translation of traditional hymns into the indigenous language and the creation of new songs deeply rooted in theology.
Her goal is to bring reformation to Christian music and writing.
“One of the best gifts church missions has given to the Pakistani Christian community was translating songs into the Punjabi indigenous language where people in various countries, particularly in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India, can perfectly understand the Word of God in their own mother tongue,” says Nazir. “Missionaries were translating some popular songs like How Great Thou Art into Urdu.”
However, to Nazir’s disappointment, popularity for the traditional music has dwindled and familiar songs have been altered to the rhythm of film tunes and other examples of popular culture. The growing trend is that the lyrics to songs are based less and less on theological knowledge.
“I started reviving old and traditional songs and I produced a couple of albums,” says Nazir. “One of the albums was about how one develops a close relationship with God through life struggles. These struggles are not there to take you out of your faith, but it’s a wonderful journey with God.”
NICOLE PRIDE is the editor of GATHER and director of communication and marketing at Princeton Theological Seminary.