09.10.2004Charlotte Wiedemann - Ghazala IrfanAcross Continents
During her last visit to Pakistan, Berlin-based author and journalist Charlotte Wiedemann met Ghazala Irfan, Associate Professor at Lahore University of Management Science. In their dialogue, they discuss the role of women in the Pakistani society and the clash of globalization and traditional society
Charlotte Wiedemann, 1 June 2004
Dear Dr Ghazala Irfan,
Charlotte Wiedemann Since returning from a recent trip to Pakistan, I have been bewildered by the situations, images, and stark contrasts I encountered in your country. When I visited you in Lahore, I brought with me a Pakistani daily newspaper to show you what was causing my growing confusion. In this newspaper, an ultra-conservative epistle about Islamic dress codes on the opinions page was flanked by images of half-naked fashion models on the lifestyle pages.
"Well," you shrugged in response, "that just shows how divided our society is." But what is it like to live in a society that is so divided and torn apart?
I am currently busy sorting the notes I made in Pakistan; most of them relate to women and their lives. My notes describe such extreme differences that I sometimes feel I must have travelled around several countries, not just one; either that or my notes dated from entirely different centuries.
On the one hand, there are women like you: highly educated, eloquent, and self-confident. You are a professor of philosophy at a private elite university; even in the West, where we are so vain about our emancipation, that is an impressive feat for a woman. The fact that your civil society has outstanding women, whose strength I sometimes found almost intimidating, simply doesn't fit into the stereotypical image we have of Pakistan.
On the other hand, there is another extreme: a complete legal vacuum. To the south west of Peshawar, close to the border with Afghanistan, I visited a small town whose walls haunted me in my dreams. The women there only see the piece of sky that stretches high above the walls of their yards; they only ever leave their houses for occasional family celebrations, and when they do they are forced to conceal themselves beneath a heavy burka.
I am in no doubt that a life such as this, which condemns women to invisibility, would be as dreadful for you as it would be for me, regardless of the fact that you are a Muslim and I am not. It is also true that in this small town, Islamic clergy preach that Islam requires women to wear the burka and that women who do not wear socks when the temperature is as high as 46° C will go to hell.
And there we have the contradiction of Pakistan: you, dear Ghazala, teach both Muslim and western philosophy at one of the most modern teaching institutes in Pakistan, while elsewhere within the country's borders, the women are being served up a parody of Islam that they swallow without voicing any criticism. Why? Because they have absolutely no education and because today's Muslim patriarchs preach ancient, pre-Islamic traditions to safeguard man's monopoly.
Almost all the people I spoke to in Pakistan were outraged by the West's one-sided vision of their country as being nothing more than a "hotbed of terrorism". They are quite right to be outraged. But which image of Pakistan is more accurate? The contradictions of Pakistani society are most obvious when it comes to women. But in what direction is your society developing?
Are religious fanatics become more powerful, as the West would have us believe? Naturally, we do not see the other side of the coin: civil society and urban liberal intelligence. But how can it be that sinister bearded men preach Islam much more loudly than the progressive forces in Pakistan?
I need your help in bringing some order into my notes!
Charlotte Wiedemann is a free-lance author and journalist, living in Berlin. From 1999 – 2003, she lived in Malaysia, working as a free-lance correspondent for various German magazines, i.e. Woche, Weltwoche, Merian, Geo.