The Liberal Side of Pakistan
Before travelling to Pakistan, most of my friends and family warned me about the dangers I would face, urging me to stay safe. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived – a country wracked by fanaticism and terrorism, or a nuanced experience of life filled with conservatives and liberals alike.
I found the latter – and I’ve mostly been immersed in the liberal side of Pakistani culture. Of course, this is giving me a bit of a skewed sense of Pakistan, but it is also a side of Pakistan we rarely see in the media.
The Pakistan I witnessed is a Pakistan where religious and secular people can live in harmony, working towards the common goal of countering extremism. A Pakistan where people drink alcohol and smoke pot in the evenings as they joke about the recent reports that ISIS killed two gay men by pushing them off tall buildings, saying “Well, that’s certainly a different interpretation of Sharia law.”
It’s a Pakistan where I mingled with people in the LGBT community, some who identify as activists and some who do not. And a Pakistan where a group of liberal youth hosted a civil society dialogue in the basement of an Islamabad hotel, a few blocks from the infamous Red Mosque, called “Thinking Beyond the Military Offensive; The Need to Challenge the Extremist Narrative.”
That same day, the Punjab government issued an ordinance declaring “A person shall not, by words spoken or written, use any formal forum to support terrorism or terrorists, or attempt to create sympathy for any terrorist or terrorist organisation, or to oppose action of Pakistan army, air or naval force, police or Rangers against any terrorist or terrorist organisation.”
These youth call their group Khudi. Their Twitter account describes them as “a youth-led initiative that challenges extremism & promotes tolerance, pluralism & democratic values through active citizenship & civic & political education.”
I had the opportunity to visit their offices in both Lahore and Islamabad last week. And the friend I stayed with happens to work for them 🙂
One of the speakers at the Khudi event in Islamabad was Mohammad Jibran Nasir who, in the wake of the Peshawar school attacks last month, has started a campaign against terrorism and terrorist sympathizers. He’s received threats from the Taliban and consequently sleeps in a different house each night. There’s an article about him on Buzzfeed for those who want more info.
So yes, this is a different Pakistan than the one I was warned to expect. And yet, it’s still a Pakistan where the majority of people having these discussions, at least in a public sphere, are men. The patriarchal culture definitely needs to be addressed, and perhaps one way of beginning to tackle that is by countering the religious fundamentalism in the country.
“All our hopes lie in this country becoming secular,” one lesbian activist told me. It seems that, on that front, and from what I experienced, progressive Pakistan agrees.