The Truth about Pakistan?

Neither the Western media’s shallow coverage nor domestic outrage over it does justice to the complexity of Pakistani society

Model Nadia Husain is photographed during Fashion Pakistan Week in Karachi in September 2009. ADREES LATIF / REUTERS
01 October, 2010

WITHOUT SHEPHERDS is a feature documentary that looks beyond the headlines and breaks open the stereotypes of the most dangerous country in the world,” declares the movie’s press kit. It’s almost as if the American filmmakers crafted this description with the specific aim of exasperating a certain kind of Pakistani. The kind who, like myself, follow Western media coverage of the country, and have developed an almost knee-jerk negative response to what is known domestically, not without some derision, as reporting on Pakistan’s ‘softer side.’

“In the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination as violent attacks ripple throughout Pakistan and tensions escalate with the West,” the film’s creators continue, “Without Shepherds offers a rare glimpse into real life in the shadow of the war on terror…a window for world audiences to look deep into the heart of this misunderstood country.” The film has yet to be released, but its trailer reveals that it will attempt to do this by shadowingfollowing six Pakistanis who lead very different lives: supermodel Vinnie, cricketer-politician Imran Khan, ‘Sufi-rocker’ Arieb Azhar, an ex-militant, a financially struggling trucker, and a female journalist on the Taliban beat. Male and female, privileged and poor, sexy and modest, liberated and oppressed, liberal and conservative, famous and faceless—the film contains all the right dichotomies required to grab the attention of newspapers and festival juries and to reach the shocking conclusion that Pakistan contains diverse people, as if that is somehow not true of every country in the world.

Shaping all of this is, of course, the persistent spectre of Islamic extremism. In their own ways all six protagonists are crafting their lives in response to it, or have at least been pictured by the filmmakers as doing so. Khan has to develop his stance on the phenomenon as a politician, and Azhar’s Sufi rock is rebellious “in a country where religion opposes music.” Laiba is a female journalist “reporting from behind Taliban lines,” and then there is, “perhaps, most importantly,” Ibrahim, who leaves his militant group only to return home to that incubator of extremism, South Punjab. Even lives seemingly disconnected from religious ideology, politics or militancy are somehow made to plug into it, no matter how tenuously; Vinnie “launched a clothing line and a fashion channel for television, and each project in her mind is a subliminal, subversive act of feminism,” and Abdullah the trucker becomes an expert on “what the US really wants” by virtue of travelling across the country for work.


Since 2007, when the Lal Masjid siege and the lawyers’ movement sparked off the intense international reporting on our country that breathlessly continues today, what many Pakistanis who follow it have found most maddening are occasional attempts to report on the human aspects of life in a country that is apparently constantly on the brink of political implosion, economic collapse and violent extremist takeover. Now heading to a film festival not near us is what seems to be yet another Western depiction of Pakistan that is inevitably—and for many of us, tiresomely and simplistically—defined by and against the country’s problem with militancy. That, in essence, is the domestic critique of depictions of the much-touted Pakistan ‘behind the headlines.’ There is too much safety and ease, both commercial and intellectual, in those headlines about Taliban safe havens, nukes at risk, the ISI’s ambiguous loyalties and Pakistan’s position on failed state indices. They have created a convenient framework that no one really wants to stray too far from.

As much as I’ve often agreed with it, this is a comfortably defensive line to take. And, as it turns out, a dishonest one.

In november 2009, foreign correspondents whose usual beats consist of suicide bomb attacks in Peshawar and lawyers’ protest marches in Rawalpindi infamously descended on Karachi to write about how much skin Pakistani women—with tattoos, no less!—were revealing on the runway. (One suspects they were also ready for something easier on the eyes than hirsute Pakistani men.) No militants were to be found anywhere near the heavily guarded luxury hotel that was hosting the country’s first fashion week (though certainly not its first fashion show) a few doors down from the barricaded American embassy and the doggedly colonial Sind Club, where almost as much scotch is consumed as water. But the stories that appeared in British and American newspapers would lead one to think the event was held within rocket-launcher distance of a training camp in South Waziristan.

THE REPORTS LED TO AN intensely negative response in Pakistan’s English print media and blogosphere. “Can we do anything in Pakistan without it being linked in some way to either appeasing the Taliban or kicking sand in their faces?” was the now well-known reply on Pakistani media blog Café Pyala to one correspondent who, flying in the face of the criticism that followed the November stories, filed a report for the The Times in the same Taliban-centric vein after another fashion event held in February this year. We rolled our eyes at the skin-takes-on-mullahs narrative, felt patronised because it failed to acknowledge our long history of fashion, and discussed in the comfort of our air-conditioned drawing rooms just how out of touch foreign correspondents can be.

But while a handful of designers showing at November’s Fashion Pakistan Week stood out for their creativity, vision and skill, no one was there just to view the 30-plus collections that had been packed into four nights. Some of us came to write, friends, family and industry types came to show support, a handful came to buy commercially, and everyone came to see and be seen. But what also bound together the nearly 800 people who crowded into a tent hidden in the back section of a fortified hotel every night was a certain approach to life, a decidedly liberal one that says a woman should be able to bare as much or as little as she chooses to.

This is not to endow exorbitantly priced clothing with the power to win Pakistan’s fight against terrorism. Fashion shows with ten models baring thighs to a few hundred socialites and the husbands who finance their overpriced purchases will not, despite what the Western press has to stay, stop the Taliban in their tracks. Nor is the freedom to display skin nearly as important as girls’ education or a woman’s ability to move freely outside her home or any number of other women’s rights issues. But events like these represent a rare space outside the home, even if an exclusive one, where women have the right to choose how much they will, or will not, cover up. They are very much a rejection of a certain way of life—one that has taken on a violent, coercive face—and the acting out of quite a different one. That alone makes their stories interesting.

Pakistani men at Friday prayers in Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad on 10 July 2010, the eve of the second anniversary of the mosque’s seige. DANIEL BEREHULAK / GETTY IMAGES

The truth is that many of us who read and critique the English-language foreign press care about the same things it cares about: signs of progressive values in a country where, by our own admission in our own writings and opinions, these values—and people’s ability to simply live their lives—are threatened. The real disagreement, then, is over who gets to speak for Pakistan, and it is born of the liberal guilt of a privileged minority that believes desperately in its own way of life but remains unsure if it is entitled to speak for a population that cannot speak to the world for itself. This includes outraged fellow journalists writing in English who may have, on reading my suggestion that a fashion week might have some political importance, knocked their mugs of black coffee onto the laptops that cost them as much as the average Pakistani makes a year.

NOR WOULD THEIR REACTION be entirely uncalled for. More than any other single factor, it is class that determines one’s experience of this country, and it would take a high degree of either obliviousness or callousness to remain unaffected by the horrific disparity in quality of life that is an unmistakable, undeniable truth about Pakistan. [Delete paragraph break here]The trouble lies with the claim that the wealthy live such sheltered, protected lives that nothing they do can be considered an act of defiance against extremism. A woman whose man has been socialised and educated into having some level of respect for her, the argument goes, isn’t really pushing the envelope when she wears what she wants to off that runway. Her choices, made inside the bubble of her privileged, Westernised life, have no political relevance whatsoever. Nor do those of the rock stars, talk show hosts, contemporary artists and Harvard-educated lawyers that the Western media keeps trotting out as bastions of progressive Pakistan.

While the gendered aspect of it makes it useful, it is unfortunate that a fashion show became the lightning rod for this debate. Fashion is susceptible to all sorts of intellectual and political snobbery, and in this case it has confused the real issue, which is a rather simple one: a violent group of people is trying to impose its version of Islam on us. Someone did something despite that imposition. That will not scare those people away. But it is both interesting to write about, and a statement. To disregard it would be to disregard its wider context, to imply that it is invalid just because the people carrying it out are not at direct risk of being blown up or even of having to change their own lifestyles. By that token, we should stop celebrating any literature written in exile or art painted by anyone privileged who ever did anything against the grain in an unequal society and especially, god forbid, any fashion shows they might have organised.

It might be de rigueur in Pakistan now to insist that an event like this one is utterly irrelevant. But the political context that frames all our activities today is undeniable. And in this country at this time, the spirit behind events like these makes it tolerable for the same Pakistani liberals who criticise Western coverage, whether we admit it to ourselves or not, to live in a country that, whether we will admit it to the world or not, has become susceptible to deeply conservative thinking.

BUT THIS DEBATE is not about class alone. Perhaps our criticism has more to do with who is producing the coverage rather than what it says.

Reading about Without Shepherds felt like sitting through another viewing of Made in Pakistan, a documentary whose launch I attended in Karachi last summer. Going back to the latter’s promotional material was even more surprising:

Made in Pakistan tells the story of four Pakistani individuals…from diverse backgrounds who defy the prevailing stereotypes of Pakistanis prevalent in the western media today… In a country where fashion, politics, religion, debate and tradition intermingle and where one definition of an Islamic state no longer holds true, these individuals represent the multifaceted nature of Pakistan… Each one of [them] through their careers, beliefs and lifestyles influence the direction in which the country is heading.

A fashion show featured in the film Made in Pakistan. {{name}}

This is not, in fact, an early draft of the synopsis of Without Shepherds, which, according to its own marketing copy, “crosscuts between six people wrestling with a country in turmoil and defiantly standing for change” and attempts to “give audiences world-over a picture of the Pakistan that headline news does not represent: the real lives of diverse citizens caught in the currents of tremendous internal and external pressures…sometimes thriving, sometimes struggling, against the backdrop of the war on terror.”

Made in Pakistan tells the stories of a female journalist, a woman working in fashion and public relations, a politician and a lawyer. Without Shepherds follows three of these four types among its own six protagonists. Like Without Shepherds, Made in Pakistan is set squarely against the backdrop of politics and bloodshed; according to the filmmakers it was created in response to the October 2007 Newsweek cover that declared Pakistan to be “the most dangerous nation on earth”. Watching the film is a crash course in the lawyers’ movement and the events leading up to Benazir Bhutto’s death, a turning point relived in all its gore and tragedy. And while the focus is on the turbulent politics that defined the end of Musharraf’s reign, rather than Islamic extremism (although there are plenty of references to the latter), there is no such thing, the film says, as a sheltered life in this country. No matter how many votes they canvass or parties they attend or how fluent their English is or how privileged they are (and in this film—unlike in Without Shepherds—they are all relatively privileged), it insists that its central characters are living life in defiance of, and not away from, the political turmoil around them.

Presumably those of us who criticise the Western media for bestowing magical Taliban-defeating powers on Karachi’s Ecstasy-popping 20-somethings did not take kindly to the centrality of terrorism and politics to these people’s lives. But one wouldn’t know. There has been no visible outrage of the kind that followed fashion week coverage, and not nearly as much eye-rolling as in the case of a Guardian article about how Pakistan’s problems were fuelling a supposedly repressed music industry. Made in Pakistan got away with it because it was made by Pakistanis.

Behind the strong reactions is, I suspect, the natural defensiveness of a people who are heartbreakingly aware of their own country’s weaknesses but cannot bear for foreigners to know of them, let alone write about them. In Pakistan’s case this is exacerbated by a power dynamic born of a memory of the British Raj and a suspicion of American imperialism. As long as Western journalists commit themselves to understanding our politics, we might continue to let them try. But we chafe at the idea of letting them try to understand us.

THIS IS NOT TO SAY THAT ALL—or even most—Western portrayals are responsible pieces of journalism, especially when people who normally report on terrorist attacks turn to culture and sociology instead. Many contain ignorant or, worse, shameless instances of sensationalism and hyperbole (a piece in the travel section of The New York Times channeled the symbolism of K2 as the world’s most dangerous mountain to create a dark, malevolent world where driving from Islamabad to base camp is as deadly an activity as trying to scale that peak). They can attribute outsized influence to the activities of small, privileged groups of people. Often they are ignorant of historical and cultural context, leading readers to believe that rock concerts, transsexuals and designer drugs have all emerged for the first time in Pakistan since 2007 in response to Taliban provocation (The Times story made glaring errors when it claimed that Fashion Pakistan Week was the country’s “first Government-endorsed fashion week” and that Pakistani television was not accustomed to showing “unveiled faces”).

Partly the replies to them seem so loud because Pakistani journalism is finally happening online. Blogs have mushroomed and all the major English dailies have websites, some with their own blogs. A younger, more Internet savvy generation of Pakistani journalists is reading—and instantly responding to—continuous New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian coverage. The back-and-forth has become quick and easy, not only because international journalism is so easily accessible on the Web but also because this boom in Pakistani writing online has coincided (and sometimes grown in response to) increasing world interest in the country. Aside from daily mentions in major American and British newspapers and frequent longer form appearances in Time, The Economist and other international magazines, Pakistan now has dedicated to it whole websites such as the AfPak Channel and sections of websites such as The Huffington Post’s Spotlight on Pakistan. It’s a perfect storm of events, reports, and commentary on reports that has put Pakistan in a fishbowl in which it can see its own reflection—partly true, partly distorted, and one that it doesn’t necessarily like.

But it’s also true—as we love to point out ad nauseam to foreign journalists—that Pashtun audiences across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have long been ogling buxom brunettes oozing out of tight, revealing outfits as they gyrate provocatively to Pushto songs, that Urdu pulp fiction pushes far more boundaries than the Pakistani fiction in English that gets written about internationally, that rock and pop bands have been around as long as this country has and in fact had their heyday in the 1990s, that we’ve had fashion shows for decades before the Taliban started blowing us up, that extremism is routinely denounced in contemporary art, that women on television have dressed less conservatively this decade than at any point since the 1970s, that you can see much of what is shown on the runway at private parties in the right neighbourhoods on a Saturday night in Karachi or Lahore, and that intoxication on one substance or another has for centuries been a part of worship at many Sufi shrines across rural and urban Pakistan.

These features of Pakistan life have been fostered and repressed over time to different degrees as the country has struggled, for the 60-odd years of its history, to strike a workable balance between Islamic conservatism and the moderate tendencies of a population bred of centuries of South Asian religious and cultural hybridisation. The fact that Jinnah implied it should be a secular state for Muslims hasn’t helped solve this enduring confusion; the era of each major Pakistani leader has retrospectively been labelled liberal or conservative, and there is some truth to these characterisations, but opposing tendencies—often within these leaders themselves—have always found a way to thrive. It was a socialist Zulfikar Bhutto who inherited the liberal, even secular policies of General Ayub Khan in 1971, but the same man was later banning alcohol, declaring Ahmadis non-Muslim and making other concessions to Islamic parties. In the 1980s General Zia-ul-Haq notoriously clamped down on everything from movie theatres, music videos and rock concerts to figurative art and women appearing on television with their heads uncovered. Public flogging and amputations became legal punishments and rape was declared adultery on the victim’s part unless she could produce four witnesses to the crime. Even then, Pakistanis continued producing and displaying art, music, subversive poetry and progressive theatre in private homes and galleries, and the inside pages of newspapers continued to speak out against Zia’s policies. Through the 1990s the pendulum swung back and forth between Benazir, who became an icon for women but never passed laws to improve their rights, and Nawaz Sharif, the head of another ostensibly secular party who went so far as to attempt implementing Shariah law. And finally, under General Musharraf, ‘enlightened moderation’ saw women in sleeveless outfits back on TV and boom-time for the fashion, music and media industries even while his failure (or refusal) to clamp down on rightwing groups fostered the terrorism and extremism that hold Pakistan hostage today. [Remove paragraph break] So when the Wall Street Journal points to the risqué life and appearance of MTV Pakistan’s reality show star Komal Rizvi, claims that she represents a departure for the country’s media, and questions her mass appeal in conservative Pakistan, it is in fact useful to remember that bosomy Punjabi movie idol Anjuman was pelvic-thrusting her way to mass adoration back in the 1990s, despite having started her career during Zia’s crackdown on the film industry.

A pair of slippers remain as police and devotees stand at the site of a suicide bomb blast at the Data Darbar shrine in Lahore on 1 July 2010 MOHSIN RAZA / REUTERS

None of this complex history means, however, that the current mix of liberal and conservative strands in Pakistani life is just another stage in our never-ending balancing act. The fact is that even if we are taking steps we have already taken before, today we are doing so against a tide more violent than any we have seen before. We have never before gone about our lives in a Pakistan where girls’ schools and CD shops are blown up, where worshippers at Sufi shrines are killed en masse and where women’s colleges in Lahore have instructed their students not to wear jeans for fear their campuses will be bombed. As I write this, a tribal peace committee has been attacked in Mohmand Agency by Taliban-acknowledged bombs that killed over a 100 people. More than 40 devotees were murdered on 1 July in a devastating attack on Data Darbar, one of the subcontinent’s most important and beloved Sufi shrines.

And these are only the latest incidents. This is a society that has been physically, mentally and emotionally destroyed by fundamentalist terror over the past three years. It is facing a cultural and existential crisis more violent than any it has seen before. Thousands of innocent people have lost their lives in terrorist attacks in the last two years alone. And nothing that any of us do, whether rich or poor, independent or oppressed, liberal or conservative, can lie outside that context.