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Showing Pakistan's liberal face

Shamil ShamsMarch 12, 2014

Many in Pakistan complain they are fed up with 'western stereotyping' that presents their country as fanatical and intolerant. They say there is also a progressive side to their country, which is not shown by the media.

The extremists, particularly the Sunni-Wahhabi Muslims, consider music 'haram' (forbidden) in Islam, but the majority of Pakistanis do not subscribe to their rigid views. Music concerts are held regularly in Pakistan and a lot of people listen to Bollywood songs, Indian classical and mystical music at home and publicly. Recently, the Karachi Arts Council organized a literature festival for children, where they also took part in musical sessions. (Shamil Shams DW)
Image: Shamil Shams

Many Pakistanis who are aware of their country's image abroad say that the Islamic republic is shown in a deliberately bad light by the international media. There is more to Pakistan than just poverty, suicide bombings and misogyny, they say.

Tanveer Ahmed, a business administration student in Karachi, says the foreign media is among them. He claims journalists are not interested in showing the real Pakistanis – the country beyond the stereotypes and myths.

"I am sure that you will discuss the good things about Pakistan only in connection to the bad things, for example, the human rights violations, the Taliban, and Afghanistan," Ahmed said to DW, adding that Pakistanis were as normal as people living in Germany or the United States.

"We are as liberal, and as conservative, as other nations."

Iram Muzaffar, editor of the daily The News' women's magazine, would agree. "Image-making is crucial in the contemporary world. It is probably more important than reality," Muzaffar told DW. "We must highlight the good things about our country and culture. Take the example of India, which is full of problems, but which has been able to project a liberal image through its media."

Pakistanis are extremely passionate about poetry. Urdu poets are probably not as popular as musicians and film stars in the Islamic Republic, but they enjoy a good deal of fan following across the country. Here, known poet, short story writer and journalist Anwer Sen Roy is reciting his prose poem at a private gathering in the southern Karachi city. (Shamil Shams DW)
Urdu poets are probably not as popular as film stars, but they do enjoy a good deal of fan followingImage: Shamil Shams

Life goes on

It is true that in the midst of violence and growing Islamic extremism, Pakistanis live like "normal" people. Plays and concerts are held regularly. Women mingle freely with men and some - albeit those belonging to the economic elite - even smoke and drink alcohol.

"Who says that only bearded men, with guns in their hands, and who despise fun, live in our country?" Ahmed asked. To prove his point, Ahmed gives the example of men and women who love eating out. From the street food to continental cuisine and fine dining, people have a penchant for all kinds of meals in Pakistan. Western food chains like McDonald's and Burger King have opened up hundreds of shops in Karachi alone in the past few years.

Ahmed told DW that at a restaurant in Karachi, the male waiters not only serve food and beverages to their customers, they also dance. Both men and women go to this restaurant and enjoy a "rhythmic supper."

"After having dinner, people go to newly-opened cinemas and enjoy a three-hour long Bollywood movie," he said.

Artistic defiance

The city-based artists, singers, writers and activists are worried about the current situation of their country. But they have not lost hope. The best way to take Pakistan out of the mess it is in, they say, is to provide a counter-narrative - to give the people an alternative. That, in their view, can be done by promoting culture and arts.

"If the Islamists have guns, I have guitar," Ahmed Meer, a 29-year-old musician, told DW. "Yes, we feel threatened by fanatics, but we will continue to play, we will continue to make music and entertain people. Pakistan needs cultural promotion more than ever. Islam is not against music and arts."

Pakistan is definitely unsafe for foreign tourists, but there is more myth about rampant kidnappings and murders of the Westerners than reality. Not only the European and American citizens visit Pakistan, they are well-treated and respected by most Pakistanis. In this picture, a Frenchmen (front row), listens to a harmonica performance(Shamil Shams DW)
Westerners who do make it to Pakistan might find the reception a pleasant surpriseImage: Shamil Shams

"Open mic" evenings have become increasingly popular in many Pakistani cities, including Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore. Young artists show off their skills at these events by singing, playing guitar, reciting a poem, and doing magic tricks.

Pakistanis are also extremely passionate about poetry. Urdu poets are probably not as popular as musicians and film stars in the country, but they enjoy a good deal of fan following across the country.

"What can be a better counter-narrative to Islamism than Urdu poetry?" said Masroor Mirza, a student of Urdu literature in Karachi. "Urdu poetry has always been secular and it has always challenged fanaticism. Alcohol and sex are celebrated in Urdu poetry. Everyone knows that the famous Urdu versifier Mirza Ghalib - who was on a par with William Shakespeare in terms of his poetic talent - mocked religion in his poetry, yet he is loved by the majority of Pakistanis," Mirza told DW.

There are more than two dozen art galleries in Karachi, which are frequented by people from all walks of life. Painting exhibitions of young and senior artists take place regularly in the city.

These events are sponsored by both corporate organizations and individual patrons of arts.

Nineteen-year-old painter Talha Kehar says he uses his brush to comment on what is happening around him.

"Artists are sensitive people, and it is disturbing for all of us. Our society has become intolerant, particularly towards those who dare to challenge the norms. It is indeed bothersome. But we are doing our job to counter extremism through music," Kehar told DW.

Pakistan is not only about burka-clad women. Pakistani girls mingle freely with men, smoke, and also drink. They do not cover themselves from head to toe (Shamil Shams DW)
Pakistani women mingle freely with men, with smoking and drinking in public commonplaceImage: Shamil Shams

'Vibrant and dynamic'

Pakistan is considered one of the most unsafe countries for foreign tourists, but many Pakistanis say there is more myth about rampant kidnappings and murders of the Westerners than reality. Not only do European and American citizens visit Pakistan, they are also well-treated and respected, they say.

Marion Rolland, who is originally from Paris, is currently residing in Karachi and working at a French cultural center. She says she is very happy living in Karachi and finds the city vibrant and dynamic. She believes that more people from the West should visit Pakistan to see what the country is actually about.

Not everyone agrees. Omair Qazi, a young Pakistani who works at an advertising agency in Karachi, is of the opinion that Pakistanis should not worry about how they are being portrayed. "Why is it so important to show the other side of Pakistan to the world? What difference will it make to the affairs of the country? If the people in other parts of the world think we are an extremist nation, let them think that," Qazi said.