Turning Adversity into Opportunity: Muniba Mazari at TEDxIslamabad (Transcript)

Muniba Mazari

Following is the full transcript of Pakistani artist, model, activist, motivational speaker Muniba Mazari’s TEDx Talk: Turning Adversity into Opportunity at TEDxIslamabad conference. This event occurred on August 26, 2017.


Behind every inspirational picture, there is an untold story of constant pain, persistent effort, and determination. There are some people in the world who fight an unseen battle within themselves 24/7, with a big smile on their face. They never cry, they never crib, they never whine. I call such people warriors because these people know the art of living life, and they are way better than those people who just exist in the world.

Six-and-a-half years back, I am in a car accident. I was traveling from Balochistan to my hometown Rahim Yar Khan. The driver slept, and the car fell in the ditch. As a result of that incident, I sustained multiple injuries. The list is a bit long; don’t get scared.

The radius and ulna on my right arm were fractured, shoulder bone and collar bone were fractured, lungs and liver were badly injured. The whole rib cage was fractured. But the injury changed my life and my personality completely was the spinal cord injury.

Three vertebrae of my backbone were completely crushed. It took us an hour or so to find an ambulance in Balochistan. All the efforts went in vain because we couldn’t find an ambulance, so I was thrown in the back of a potohar jeep, and I was rushed to the nearby hospital. In that jeep, I realized that half of the body was fractured and half was paralyzed. We were rushed to the nearby hospital where we came to know there was no first aid; I was kicked out.

Then I went to another hospital, in my hometown, where the doctor said, “Take her away. We cannot operate her!” And I was like, “Why?” And they were like, “We don’t have equipment. She will die some day. You go!” I was kicked out again. But I finally ended up in a comparatively better hospital in Karachi.

Luckily, I wasn’t kicked out; probably that’s why I am alive. So I stayed in that hospital for two-and-a-half months. I underwent three major, two minor surgeries. The doctors have put a lot of metal in my arm, a lot of metal in my backbone, so I feel more like an “iron lady” now.

But those two-and-a-half months I spent in the hospital were dreadful. I was in severe pain, both physically and psychologically. Many people left, very close ones. The ones who were supposed to stay with me were the ones who left me when I needed them the most. I was devastated. Life was completely pointless, aimless, colorless.

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I was tired of wearing the white scrubs, looking at the white walls, doing nothing, sitting idle. I really didn’t want to live! But then I realized that instead of crying for the people who were not meant to be with me and for the legs which I have lost, I have people around me who want to see me alive. “I have so much to be grateful for. So let’s stop cribbing, stop whining, because it is pointless.” The best decision that I took in my entire life was the painting that I made in the hospital, with a deformed hand. That’s how I added colors in my colorless life. That’s how this adversity helped me in exploring an artist in me. That’s how this art kept me alive through this whole journey.

Then I was moved to Islamabad. I stayed in my room, in bed, confined, for two years because I developed multiple pressure ulcers and a variety of infections and allergies.

Now, this whole traumatic journey of two years and two-and-a-half months being bedridden, doing nothing, the only thing kept me alive was art. What a beautiful medium art is, that without uttering a single word, you express yourself. What a beautiful escape it was!

But the day I sat on the wheelchair for the first time, I was a completely different person. I still remember that. I looked at myself in the mirror and I said, “You cannot wait for a miracle to come and make you walk; you cannot wait for the stem-cell treatment, because it’s very expensive; you cannot wait and sit in the corner of the room, crying and begging for mercy, because people don’t have time. So the only thing that I could do was to accept myself the way I was, the sooner the better.

That’s what I did. I really wanted to make myself financially strong: let’s become professional! I started to find some jobs. A very good friend of mine found a status on Facebook saying, “We want content writers,” and like a cribber I commented, “I wish I could.” I was called for that interview, and I was hired as one of the content writers for Pakistan’s first official websites, heartofasiapk – Salmaan Taseer was the CEO. That’s how I started my professional career.

So I was becoming financially strong, stable; content writing was good. I was constantly exhibiting my work in different galleries, I was flourishing as an artist. Life was easy, but I wasn’t happy. I was not contented, because I was constantly aiming; I was constantly aiming high, I was thinking big.

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I didn’t know what or how I am going to do, but I knew I want to do something big for people, for the country. One day, I came across this polio-campaign-advertisement image, this little boy from a very underprivileged family, he’s sitting on a wheelchair, and with his father sitting with him, crying and saying to the world in that campaign, “Give polio drops to your kids! Otherwise they will become like him.” That advertisement shook me from inside. I felt devastated. The way that boy was objectified as an emblem of grief, misery, mercy, lifelessness, nothingness – such a wrong picture, which was being portrayed in the media about the persons with disabilities.

That’s what we are called. That was a day when I decided that I had to change the perception of the people about being on a wheelchair. Because being on a wheelchair, you can still face the world with a big smile on your face, and you can tell the world that you’re happy the way you are. No one has the right to objectify us as an emblem of misery or mercy. We are human beings: we breathe, we have souls, we are alive, we feel.

We don’t need your sympathies, we don’t need your empathy. Let us live! No one has the right to “dis- our abilities.” We’re capable enough to breathe and to live each and every moment of our lives. I recently did a modeling campaign for Tony&Guy, and that makes me Pakistan’s first wheelchair-bound model. I’m grand ambassador of the Body Shop Pakistan, and I am one of the very lucky Pond’s Miracle Women.

It’s always good to know that there are very few wheelchair-bound artists in the world, and I am proud to be one, being a Pakistani, trying to preserve the ethnic jewels of the country and the paintings adorned by very graceful, strong and powerful Pakistani women, which I paint. Very soon I am going to be Pakistan’s first wheelchair-bound TV ho.st And I am blessed to have a beautiful three-year-old son, which, like, he was here, but he was so cranky.

Now you all must be thinking why I am using the word “wheelchair” over and over again in my talk. This is the very perspective I am talking about. This wheelchair is not my weakness. This wheelchair is not an adversity. This is my strength because of the kind of attention I get when I go anywhere is priceless. Everyone loves to be in the limelight. I have started to enjoy being in the limelight too.

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This is the very perspective I am talking about. This wheelchair has given me an opportunity to explore what I had in me and I never knew it. I feel really sorry for some people who play this blame game. They say they feel caged. They cannot perform well, they cannot excel, because the system isn’t allowing them to do: the government, Pakistan, the whole world. Society, economy is not letting them grow as a person. They’re not excelling in their careers. They say they are caged. I feel sorry. I can undoubtedly say that I am caged, because when I get up in the morning, I am unable to sit on my own.

I am unable to shift from the bed to the wheelchair, from the wheelchair to the car, from the car to the wheelchair – I need an assistant, 24/7, to do little things in life. Let’s make it more simple. When I feel thirsty at midnight, and when I forget, which I always do – and I forget to keep my water bottle on my nightstand and I don’t see anyone around to help me, I stay thirsty for the whole night because I’m unable to get a glass of water for myself. I can undoubtedly say that I’m caged by my body, but my mind is free. And so is my soul and so is my spirit.

I can still dream big. I can still think big. I can still aim high. I can still aspire to inspire. Nothing should stop me. This wheelchair shouldn’t be the reason or an excuse of not doing anything in life. I still have big dreams. I still have big plans and still have to work on that.

Be grateful for what you have, and, trust me, you will always end up having more. And if you cry, and if you crib for the little things in your life, you will never ever have enough.

You want to excel? You want to grow? You want to be powerful and passionate and great professionals? Learn the art of converting your adversities into opportunities. The moment you are going to learn it, the sky is the limit. So be grateful, be happy, be alive, and don’t let anyone “dis- your abilities.”

Thank you.

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