Young Pakistanis have more opportunity than ever to change the country. But what will they do with their freedom?
Jump around: fans of Pakistani rapper Adil Omar at a concert in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo by Anjum Naveed/AP
Samira Shackle is a freelance British journalist and writer, whose work has been published in the New Statesman, The Guardian, Prospect and The Express Tribune. She lives in Islamabad and London.
We are sitting in a room the size of a football pitch in an upmarket area of Karachi: men and women in our mid-20s, most smoking cigarettes. On a coffee table in front of us sits a two-litre bottle of imported Famous Grouse whisky and an equally outsize bottle of Absolut vodka. Occasionally, a servant — a young man the same age as us — enters to remove dirty glasses or refill the ice bucket. Outside is a fleet of cars, and three armed guards; two working at the gate of the house, and one who accompanied a guest. The group is debating the merits of the iPad mini. Sadia bought hers on a recent trip to New York. Faroukh interjects: ‘You’re so lucky you have a US passport. I’m dying to go. I’ve been waiting for my visa for eight weeks now.’ Talk turns to the torturous process of travelling with a Pakistani passport. One young woman says with outrage that her parents recently had a visa application rejected by the US embassy: ‘I mean, what the hell are they going to do? Blow up the White House?’
In the eyes of the world, Pakistan equals terrorism. For young, privileged Pakistanis wishing to travel to the UK, the US or France, that means submitting to a visa application process that can take months to allow for extra security checks. ‘I feel self-conscious, even apologetic when I’m travelling internationally,’ said Komail Aijazuddin, a 28-year-old artist from Lahore. ‘I’m not always made to, but myself I feel it.’ Ghazal Raza, a 26-year-old NGO worker from Peshawar, in north-western Pakistan, describes being pulled out of a queue in Bangkok airport. ‘They said: “You’re a Pakistani passport-holder. We have to do a full security check.” When you travel, you know what people think of you and your country.’
Like many others, Ghazal blames overly negative media portrayals of Pakistan. But the hindrance of the Pakistani passport also underscores deeper questions about national identity. When I first met Komail, at his house in Lahore, he showed me the clause printed on every page of his passport: ‘Valid for every country of the world except Israel.’ ‘In order to get my passport to leave the country, I have to say that Israelis don’t exist, and that Ahmadis [a persecuted Muslim sect] don’t exist, and that I believe in the Prophet and the last word of God,’ he told me. ‘Fine. But what do the Israelis have to do with it?’
Any national identity is complex, but rarely more so than in Pakistan. The country, formed in 1947 to provide a homeland for India’s Muslims, is just 66 years old. Beset with problems — a struggling economy, crippling energy crisis and, yes, terrorism — it is widely agreed to be at a crossroads. Its population has one of the world’s largest youth bulges, with 38 per cent of the population aged under 15. Thirty per cent of all registered voters in this year’s election were under 29, and young people were a political demographic as never before. Across the world, studies show that a large population of young people — particularly men — can stir social unrest and precipitate major change. The question, in this unpredictable context, is: what might such change mean?
I had dinner with a group of wealthy young women from Karachi, where the conversation centred on the logistics of transporting designer handbags by plane
Certainly, the stereotype of radicalised Pakistani youth chanting ‘Death to America’ represents only a tiny minority. Pakistani society is characterised by huge divisions between rich and poor, so it is impossible to speak of ‘youth’ as a single entity. In poor rural areas, young people still live in a traditional feudal system, little changed since the 19th century. These rural areas are more sparsely populated than cities, and for the most part, their inhabitants, young or old, lack the education and means to challenge the status quo.
In big cities, the young have access to education and, crucially, the internet, and thanks to an increasingly open media culture, information. Yet, even among these educated urban dwellers, there are huge differences in opportunity and outlook. Pakistan is deeply class-bound. The traditional, self-termed ‘elite’ consists of the same families it always has: wealthy industrialists, landowners, provincial nobility and aristocracy. The legendary claim is that Pakistan’s ‘elite’ is made up of around 400 families; in real terms, it is probably around two per cent of the population. Pakistan’s political dynasties are drawn from this class; the Sharifs (recently returned to power) are an industrial family, while the Bhuttos (recently voted out) are landowners. These people, like my companions at the Karachi party, tend to speak English even at home; they are mostly educated abroad, own property overseas, drink alcohol, and have a more Westernised outlook than the rest of the country.
Over the decades, the prominence of other institutions such as the army has created ‘new elites’ who rival the old moneyed classes in wealth and education, but tend to be more socially conservative, perhaps eschewing alcohol, and upholding arranged marriage. The most convincing estimates suggest that this group makes up around 10-15 per cent of the population. The middle class overall, which is as ill-defined in Pakistan as in any other country, and covers a wide range of life experiences — from these ‘new elites’ to those just above the poverty line — is thought to be around 35 per cent. Many believe this emergent class could be a driving force for social change.
Sadly, many educated young people just want to get out of the country. I moved to Pakistan last year to work as a journalist, initially living with relatives in Karachi. ‘You’ve got a British passport, why would you choose to come here?’ was a common question from my peers. Parents go to great lengths to guarantee foreign passports for their children, giving birth abroad or applying for citizenship elsewhere. For the wealthiest youngsters, university in the US, Europe or Canada is the norm, and many don’t want to return. The traditional ‘elites’ feel under siege; armed guards at the house are standard, and many do not move around their hometowns without a driver or bodyguard. ‘Everyone wants an exit strategy,’ Komail told me. ‘There are a lot of kidnappings, a lot of threats.’
Most of Pakistan bears little resemblance to the bomb-plagued hellhole portrayed in the media. Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi are full of palatial houses, glorious restaurants and buzzing shopping districts. Yet instability is a constant backdrop to life, particularly in Karachi, the most dangerous of the big cities.
Last year, I had dinner with a group of wealthy young women from Karachi. The conversation mainly centred on the logistics of transporting designer handbags by plane: put them in the hold and risk losing them, or take them in hand luggage despite the extra bulk? These women had little interest in the Taliban, the forthcoming election, or the duplicity of the intelligence agencies. Nonetheless, talk turned to the growing unrest in the city, because it meant that Saira might have to change her chosen wedding venue. ‘Maybe it’s bad we only think about these things like, “Oh, there’s a running gun battle, where can we go for dinner?”’ she said. Yet this blasé attitude is shared by many who wish to insulate themselves from the chaos outside. The wealthy spend vast sums on personal security, and invest in diesel-run generators to circumvent the country’s regular power cuts. Although it is not always possible to ignore Pakistan’s wider instability, money can massage away its rougher aspects, ensuring a luxurious, comfortable way of life, and prompting a disinclination to set about reforming society.
The quest for an ‘exit strategy’ is not universal. Pakistanis might not feel optimistic about their country, but there is still immense national pride. In June, I interviewed the district health officer for Rawalpindi. He was thrilled to learn that I was half-Pakistani, but on discovering that the only nationality I held was British his face fell. ‘If you had a disabled child, would you abandon it?’ he asked. ‘If not, then you should not abandon Pakistan either. It is your identity and you should have the ID card to say so.’
This sense of national feeling filters right through the social structure. Many well-educated Pakistanis nurture a patriotic desire to work for their country. Bilal Masood, 26, a social activist from Karachi, won a prestigious scholarship to study in Denmark but returned to Pakistan afterwards, despite having the option to remain overseas. ‘So many people thought I wouldn’t come back. Young people here struggle to get employment. There is terrorism and corruption. But I had a passion to work for Pakistan.’ Bilal is active in the Pakistani Youth Organisation (PYO), an apolitical, Karachi-based group that focuses on social work. The PYO was founded by Sabieh Hasan, also 26, and a handful of friends, initially through Facebook. ‘We were students,’ Sabieh tells me. ‘We thought we should have constructive discussions instead of wasting time — help each other, spread education and build a good image of Pakistan.’ Like most Pakistanis — from all demographics — he is preoccupied with Pakistan’s bad image: ‘We are good people, we are not terrorists,’ he says.
Bilal and Sabieh’s work continues the Muslim tradition of helping the needy. This ethos is imbued in the consciousness of the nation; even decadent young people who’d never consider full-time social activism routinely hand restaurant leftovers to the homeless, or carry bottles of water in their cars to give to street children. But while philanthropy is applauded, formalised social work is generally not seen as a primary career, particularly for the emerging middle classes who prioritise making a good salary. ‘My family thought I was wasting my time when I started this group six years ago, but now they are coming around,’ says Sabieh.
Say it softly, but we believe in a secular Pakistan
Despite the apathy of the most privileged, many young people are increasingly politically active. All the major parties have energetic youth wings, and aggressively courted the youth vote ahead of this year’s election. On Election Day itself, 11 May, the streets were full of jubilant young men decked out in party colours. This outpouring of political opinion from the young middle classes reflects a growing feeling that they might actually have a stake in a system long dominated by political dynasties and military dictators.
The Pakistan Youth Alliance (PYA) was founded in 2007 to oppose General Pervez Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule, and its banners can be seen at protests up and down the country. I met its founders, Ali Abbas Zaidi, 26, and Maryam Kanwer, 28, at a café in Islamabad’s Kohsar Market; they were hunched over a laptop at a table in the bustling square, looking over a project proposal. ‘The question of ideological inclinations in Pakistan is very difficult and confusing. Right- and left-wing are not that clear,’ said Zaidi. ‘All of us come from middle-class or upper-middle-class educated families. Say it softly, but we believe in a secular Pakistan.’ He laughed. ‘I say it softly because the word “secular” is misinterpreted by the mullahs in Pakistan. It is known as “godlessness” — but secularism has nothing to do with being godless. If you talk to anyone here, in any middle-class neighbourhood of Islamabad, he will be very secular and tolerant in his views. But people are confused, because the state machinery has been used to propagate a certain mindset to them: a hyper-nationalistic, religious version of “Pakistanism”.’
Across the country, people are frustrated with extreme or intolerant versions of Islam, as Ghazal, the NGO worker from Peshawar confirms. She describes an incident a few months ago, when a mullah in the northern Hangu district said it was forbidden to marry women who work in the NGO sector. ‘I am not saying I am not a religious person, but I can’t stand these hypocrite mullahs. Frankly speaking, they don’t even know about religion.’
In Pakistan, as in India, there is an intense sensitivity about religion, and initiating debate, in any form, can have serious repercussions. Komail, the artist from Lahore, explicitly explores notions of blasphemy through his paintings — beautiful pieces that examine Muslim, and particularly Shia, history through the visual language of Western masters. Last year, his website was hacked by a Bangladeshi Islamist group, who labelled him a blasphemer. When he restarted the website, it was hacked again.
‘I fear for the state of art here,’ he told me. ‘I don’t know of any artist, writer, dancer, or performer who hasn’t been threatened with violence, or forced at one time or another to consider moving abroad. Not a single person. It isn’t always a Taliban threat, but everyone does, to a degree, self-censor.’ Nonetheless, Komail chose to move back to Lahore from New York, where he had lingered after art school, despite feeling he ‘wasn’t part of that same conversation.’ In contrast; ‘Whatever was coming out of Pakistan was very visceral. Moving back has been fantastic professionally because there is so much to engage with.’
My grandmother, who moved to London 40 years ago, was astonished when I told her that the latest Bollywood movie starring the Indian heart-throb Shahrukh Khan was on general release in Pakistan
One humid Karachi afternoon, I visited the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. The end-of-term exhibition featured sculpture, video art, traditional drawings many exploring the female figure, modesty, and religion. ‘Art here is inherently socially conscious,’ Komail told me. ‘It reflects society very obviously and overtly.’
And it is not just the visual arts. Adil Omar, 22, is Pakistan’s leading rapper. Unlike others in this small but emergent scene, he performs in English rather than Punjabi or Urdu. His most famous song, ‘Paki Rambo’, features a comedy video of Adil and his friends tearing around Islamabad. The lyrics are a mixture of rap cliché (‘talk greezy, motherfucker, get a jab in the jaw’) and casual references to contemporary Pakistani issues (‘I ain’t known to fuck around like a blasphemy law’). ‘I think Pakistan is the most exciting place to be in terms of creating music, finding inspiration, seeing things,’ Adil told me. ‘It’s not a stable place. It keeps you on your toes. And there is just so much potential for great stories. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, it’s strange, it’s different.’
Yet just as being Pakistani at an airport immigration desk has consequences, so too does being Pakistani and producing music. When ‘Paki Rambo’ was released in 2011, it created a stir in the international media. ‘I found it really funny that everyone picked up on it as a song about “war-torn Pakistan,”’ he says, mimicking an English accent. ‘I wrote it for fun; it had no meaning. I’ve kind of welcomed the over-analysis because it’s given me exposure, but I don’t want to be boxed as a political artist, or even as a Pakistani rapper. I’m just a kid from Islamabad — a product of this country and my surroundings.’
Some of Adil’s songs are littered with references to Pakistan’s problems — ‘Paki Rambo’ mentions censorship and the Taliban, while this year’s ‘Summertime’ refers to kidnap, acid burnings, and suicide bombs — but these issues are not unpacked. ‘I’m just painting pictures,’ he explained. ‘I don’t want to preach.’
This wariness of international stereotypes crops up again and again among young people I speak to. Tooba Masood, 24, is studying for an MA in journalism in London, having previously worked at The Express Tribune, one of Pakistan’s main English-language newspapers. She is frustrated at the British media’s portrayal of her home country. ‘Even if you’re writing about food, it has to have a Taliban angle or no one is interested,’ she told me over coffee in London.
Few outsiders understand the recent explosion in Pakistani media. After decades of intense state censorship, media ownership was freed up under Musharraf, and further relaxed by the civilian government that followed. There are now around 90 television channels where before there was only PTV, the state-run Pakistan Television Corporation. This has had a huge impact on the balance of power: the media has unearthed corruption scandals, and even, many believe, staved off a military coup. The rapid spread of social media — there are 30 million internet users in Pakistan — is allowing young people to express themselves and reach out to others. Broadcast and print media are newly outspoken in their criticism of the government, and Indian films and TV shows are now allowed in. My grandmother, who moved to London 40 years ago, was astonished when I told her that the latest Bollywood movie starring the Indian heart-throb Shahrukh Khan was on general release in Pakistan.
Most young people welcome this relaxation of boundaries. Of course, the traditional elites have always had access to foreign cultures, and many of them are comfortable in the visual or musical language of Western culture. Others — particularly the emerging middle classes, with their stronger social conservatism — might enjoy having greater freedom of expression, but retain a deep-seated anxiety about their culture being eroded.
‘After the media revolution, things are changing,’ said Bilal, the PYO activist from Karachi. ‘But are there only positive things we are talking about? Are we losing our own identity? Are we going towards Western culture? Are we losing our own language? These are things we need to address. We are going towards modernity but we need to understand our old values, too. The values of respect, authority, caring for your parents are deep-rooted in our society and do not need to change.’ Sabieh, his colleague, shares these concerns. ‘We are a Muslim state, so why is Sunday a holiday instead of Friday? If we continue to show Indian cartoons to our kids, they will learn Hindi instead of Urdu. We should give priority to our own language, culture, traditions, and values.’
Turkish TV dramas have lately become immensely popular in Pakistan, with all ages and classes. They are shown at prime time, with the women’s low-cut tops blurred out by TV censors. ‘Why not promote your own Pakistani dramas with Pakistani talent? The identity you should portray through media is not other country’s identities,’ said Bilal.
To an extent, these concerns are the concerns of all developing countries in an era of globalisation. But in Pakistan, the idea of asserting certain values takes on extra resonance, because the very nature of the country’s identity is open to debate. Many people see liberal values as inherently Western — despite a long history of home-grown feminism and educational activism — while others see the hand of Saudi Arabia behind growing Islamisation, despite the country’s founding purpose of providing a Muslim homeland. Language is yet another deeply charged issue. English is the language of the colonisers, yet it opens up employment opportunities. It is also a marker of status; the wealthiest young people look down on those who speak English with a strong accent, simultaneously acknowledging that they themselves can barely read Urdu. Others, including many from the ‘new elites’, see Urdu as a matter of national pride, even if the more common native tongues are provincial languages such as Punjabi, Pashto and Sindhi.
‘Our parents just want their sons and daughters to marry and have kids, be financially stable and have a nice house and car,’ he said. ‘But we don’t want that. We want a better country.’
The problems facing young people who wish to instigate change are not just cultural, but technical and logistical. Salman Sarwar is a 28-year-old singer and development consultant. When I visited his office, a converted house in Islamabad that he shares with a group of other freelancers, the temperature outside was 45 degrees. Inside, the power was off, as it is for around eight hours of every day in the capital city. ‘How can you be creative with these power cuts?’ said Salman. ‘Young people are frustrated. They are demoralised. They are hopeless. The start of tension is the death of creativity, and everything is so tense and frustrated here in Pakistan.’
The constant power cuts are exhausting. In Karachi, living in a family home equipped with a generator and staff to fire it up, I barely noticed the energy crisis. When I moved into my own flat in Islamabad it hit me: many nights waking up every hour as the power cut out and temperatures rose; Skype calls curtailed as my laptop stalled; business meetings attended with wet hair as the hairdryer would not function. That the ‘elites’ buy generators solves one problem but creates others. It perpetrates a certain attitude: why pay an electricity bill when I am producing my own electricity? Why pay tax when no services are provided? The richest segment of society, paying large amounts of money to preserve their standard of living, is ever more alienated from the society as a whole.
Like many other young people, Tooba, the journalist, shares Salman’s view. ‘Everyone is depressed and no one addresses it. Post-traumatic stress disorders are very prevalent, but everyone is afraid to go to a shrink in case people find out and they can’t get a wedding or a job.’
Certainly, marriage and the importance of the family unit is one tradition that shows no signs of eroding. Most career-oriented people in their 20s are also focused on marriage. While ‘love marriages’ are increasingly accepted, there remains an element of transaction: it can be a means of securing family status and property. More immediately, young people — particularly those with strict parents — see marriage as a way to gain independence and leave the family home.
The search for a spouse varies enormously across the social spectrum. The ‘elite’ young people at the party in Karachi, many of whom were married or engaged, had all selected their own partners, their parents confident that they would find someone from the ‘right’ social circle. Many openly had romantic relationships before marriage. The middle classes tend to expect their children to marry someone of their parents’ choosing, and frown on dating culture, although things are changing. Ali, the founder of PYA, comes from a military background. Recently, his sister married outside the extended family for the first time in seven generations. She set a precedent, so now he, too, will be allowed to choose a partner. Many of Ali’s friends are in the same position. ‘Our parents just want their sons and daughters to marry and have kids, be financially stable and have a nice house and car,’ he said. ‘That’s the Pakistani dream! But we don’t want that. We want a better country. We want the ills within society to be removed.’
For others, the situation is as restrictive ever. Aisha Malik, 27 and from Lahore, spent eight years studying and working in Canada. Despite living independently for years, her conservative parents now restrict her social life. ‘I am desperate to get married, but I can never go out anywhere to meet anyone. My parents are introducing me to a few people but I haven’t met anyone I like. They wouldn’t force me to marry someone, but I can’t make a choice without their input.’ At times, it’s easy to forget how patriarchal Pakistani society is: most women from upper-middle-class or elite backgrounds are highly educated, and have good jobs. Vocal women proliferate in public life. Yet, when it comes to the domestic sphere, tradition often prevails.
Shifting, conflicting value systems can engender duplicity. ‘You see hypocrites in Pakistan who are dating but are publicly against it,’ said Ali. ‘Or those who drink but at the same time stand up and say “I want to die for Islam”.’ Alcohol, of course, remains illegal for Muslims (who make up 94 per cent of Pakistan’s population), yet it is easily available to those who can pay for it. Most wealthy people know a bootlegger who will sell them imported alcohol. Pakistani men famously have a predilection for whisky. Their sons do, too; but most young people wouldn’t dream of accepting an alcoholic drink in front of their parents; while, among the new, more conservative, elites, many disapprove of alcohol on religious grounds.
‘Going out to party is more difficult in Pakistan,’ Tooba said. ‘You have to know someone who knows someone; you have to go to someone’s house, or you drink in a car. And if you do any of that, there’s the possibility of the police catching you and taking money from you.’ She describes nearly getting caught by the police. ‘I thought: I will never do this again. But eventually you still go out and do it.’
It is a journalistic cliché to say that Pakistan is a land of contradictions, but as with most clichés, it contains a kernel of truth. For young people, life can be difficult: corruption is entrenched at every level, from getting a job, to paying a traffic fine. Unemployment is endemic. There are necessary restrictions on personal freedom, because of the security threat, but also because of social conservatism and the demands of living with extended family. On the other hand, day-to-day, there are many positives. Young people say that there are many opportunities and that it is easier to set up a business and make your mark professionally than in the West. They are proud of their national humour, the culture of hospitality, and the communality of life. In the absence of nightclubs and bars, they make their own fun — plenty of it.
Despite the pessimism that so many outwardly expound, there is a sense of energy in political and social activism, and in the arts. Consistent media coverage has meant that young people are aware that they are a growing and powerful demographic, and now, with greater freedom of expression, they feel they have a stake in society, however problematic and divided that society might be. If the older generation was content just to get by, Pakistan’s pressing social problems mean that many young people can’t: they must remake society so that Pakistan becomes a place they can be proud to live in.
12 September 2013