Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam - "They Desire a Better Country"
Posted on Aug 27, 2012 / Author: Maria Kari / Tags: Human Rights and Development, Education, Culture and Communities, Islamabad, journalism, law, media, Muhammad Jinnah, Pakistan
“Sure, relations are strained with the West. What else can be expected after such severe breaches of trust from both sides? But is it fair to portray the 180 million people living in this nation as a monolithic entity capable of only terror? No. Here’s an idea. Give us the microphone. Give us - the average, nine-to-fivers, homemakers, and hard workers - a chance to show you what we are made of. Maybe you will be surprised to find it is just cells, blood, bone, hope, loss and dreams…like you.”
- Email from a student in Lahore, Pakistan
It was an unusually hot May morning in Lahore as I gazed up at a gate shielding an ivy-coated home and thought to myself, ‘there is no way this is a law firm.’ A phone call to my new boss confirmed that I was in indeed outside their office. For security reasons (all legal counsel at the firm is female) they’d chosen to blend into a posh Lahore neighborhood complete with a large wasp nest in its tree and a pet chicken in the front yard. Looking past the façade, I realized that predujice can be misleading, and the first few weeks I had spent living and working in Pakistan were hardly enough to unravel a nation once dubbed by Madeleine Albright as an “international migraine.”
As any media critic worth their salt will tell you, most of the reports coming out of the region are a total nightmare - circumstantial, biased, grossly exaggerated, if not entirely untrue in their nature. As an acquaintance in Lahore put it, “the focus should be on individual stories, but instead storytelling on Pakistan and its people is being reduced to what is a journalistic crime; the microphone is placed in the hands of the ‘Other.’”
Steve Coll from The New Yorker said it best: ‘a mistake journalists frequently make is to forget that the root word of journalism is “journal.’”
Tune in to the online journals of the scores of Pakistanis who routinely take to social media and what you will find is a bevy of witticisms, ripostes, and counters to the establishment. These are the real and substantial stories, the raw human encounters which will always hold the trump card over impalpable, second-hand accounts.
Returning the microphone to the individual sheds greater light on motivations and provides a point of view, instead of a view from nowhere.
The Pakistan I visited as a child is not the same country it is now. The price of food and fuel is soaring. A lack of jobs are immobilizing an entire generation of educated and ambitious youth. Medicine is scarce. Consequently, much of the average Pakistani’s mental radar is occupied with basic survival. Civic participation has now become a mere afterthought.
Yet, people’s frustrations have found an outlet and life under political oppression and corruption has begun yielding an intellectual and artistic harvest.
During my time in Pakistan I was invited to speak at a women’s college in Islamabad. The organizers asked me to address the complex mystery behind the way Muslim women are represented by Western mainstream media. I opted to turn the lens towards Canada. After all, we have no shortage of local politicians and journalists using “liberal rhetoric as a vehicle for conservative ends” - cue a mental image of the recent niqab debates and the slanted coverage of (dis)honorable killings.
Following my talk, a leading feminist author and women’s studies professor delivered a presentation (to thunderous applause and catcalls) on what is, in my humble opinion, every Pakistani woman’s current favorite topic: drama serials.
Constructed soap opera style with a Shakespearean twist, these nightly-run episodes provide thought-provoking commentary on the subjugation and empowerment of women, and the role of status, culture, and religion in their lives.
Clearly, the predominantly female audience was very receptive to the idea of penning their own stories (this is known as the FUBU effect - storytelling for us by us) for it allows these women to project their hopes, dreams, frustrations, goals, and repressed desires onto female characters, most of whom often don the lead roles. And since the female lead is very rarely seeped in glamour and luxury, it makes it all the more easier for her to serve as a mouthpiece for the varying generations and social classes of Pakistani women watching.
This is what we need to have more of in Western media reports on South Asian women; we need to hear individual stories about women on this side of the world - a sort of giving-back of the proverbial platform and a challenging of the current rhetoric, which has thus far served only to further subjugate and victimize.
This year when Emmy and Oscar award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid dedicated her Oscar to all the women in Pakistan working for change, it provided an indication that space is opening up for independent artists, musicians, filmmakers, and social activists.
Perhaps, for the first time since Pakistan’s inception, the vision of a truly vibrant country as conceived by its founder, Muhammad Jinnah, may be met - through its women and the vitality of their uncensored speech, art, and activism.
This is the first part of a three-part series on my summer living and working in Pakistan.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.