By Alena Sadiq.
Pakistan is a country of conflict, instability, and poverty. But it is also a country of progress, hope, and diversity. To say it is only the former, or only the latter, is incorrect. Like any country, Pakistan is multi-faceted and not defined by a few factors alone. This realization is often lost in newspapers, national but also international, where the ineptitude of the national institutions tends to overshadow the personal struggles and individual stories that are crucial to the identity of Pakistan. This article will explore a few such stories to offer another side of Pakistan to the readers of this publication.
Humaira Bachal started teaching when she was twelve years old. Backed by her determined mother, who bore verbal and physical abuse for the sake of her daughters’ education, Humaira managed to go to school despite all the obstacles. Her mother would cut wood and sell it in the market just so she could keep sending her daughters to school as the men of the house were opposed to their education. In her home, in one of the poorest neighborhoods at the outskirts of the metropolitan Karachi, twelve-year-old Bachal then taught other children what she had learned at school. When she was fifteen, Karachi’s Rotary Club spotted her initiative. They provided funds so she could move this project of hers to another building. This became the Dream Model Street School. Another remarkable Pakistani woman, Oscar-winning Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, filmed Bachal’s journey for the philanthropy Chime for Change—a campaign founded by the fashion house Gucci to further female empowerment—in a documentary titled ‘Humaira Dreamcatcher’. This documentary debuted at a concert in London where Bachal shared the stage with the pop star Madonna. The singer appealed for funds, and promised to contribute, to build a new structure that would house an expanded Dream School. Today Bachal’s school is educating 12,000 young Pakistanis. Bachal came up with an innovative way to encourage female enrollment. It was something like a ‘buy one, get two free’ offer—with every girl that parents admitted to the school, they would get to educate two sons free of cost. She has also pioneered home-based teaching for older girls and women, keeping in mind the social conservatism in the area. Humaira is a strong, independent Pakistani woman who is emancipating other women and furthering the cause of education in her community.
Another young Pakistani leader is Jibran Nasir. In the 2013 elections, he ran as an independent candidate and although he was unsuccessful, he gained the admiration of many by addressing taboo issues and through his unique campaigning—he refused to advertise himself on billboards and instead opted to spend the money on societal improvements such as fixing sewers to prove his competence. Come December 2014, the lawyer and human rights activist again rose to prominence when he took a stand against the Lal Masjid cleric, Abdul Aziz, who had refused to condemn the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar. He was eventually joined by a few hundred more and when the cleric started threatening them, they refused to budge until the police registered an FIR against Aziz for inciting violence. Pioneering an unapologetic approach to taking on Taliban sympathizers, this attitude was fairly new to Pakistan’s civil society movement. Despite a disappointing turnout at his recent protests against the Sindh government for allowing a banned, sectarian organization to hold public rallies, and a social media campaign to defame him, the activist appears to be standing firm.
Among the stories of religious conflict and violence, the story of coexistence and harmony often goes unreported. Mithi is a small town in Sindh, where 80 percent of the people are Hindu. In this town, Muslims and Hindus coexist with mutual respect. Hindus prepare sweets for Muslims during the month of fasting, Ramadan, and do not hold any celebrations in the Muslim month of Muharram. Similarly, Muslims do not slaughter cows in this village and also celebrate Hindu festivals like Diwali with their neighbors. The people of Mithi give interfaith harmony a new meaning and are an aspect of Pakistan that very few know about.
These three examples are only one window into Pakistan. An education activist, a human rights campaigner and a town of interfaith harmony: it is hard not to idealize this aspect of Pakistan, but to get an accurate picture, all the faces of the country have to be viewed together. This means not looking at just the problems and catastrophes but for many Pakistanis, it also means not looking at only the feel-good, inspiring images either. These stories of hope should serve as a call to action, not a reason to be complacent.