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,
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.
Ghazala Irfan, 22 June 2004
Dear Charlotte Wiedemann
The greatest malady afflicting Pakistani today is that educated people like me are in some ways alienated from its own society. Contemporary Education which by far is Western, enlightens only a few, these few do not take the teeming millions with them: they are too poor, too ignorant and too remote to interact with. And this accentuates the division among the classes in Pakistan.
The educated elite is divorced from the realities and lives in isolated but protected islands. They do not feel responsible for the so-called 'others' for they cannot relate to them nor communicate with them. Society becomes truncated ever schizophrenic.
The only people who reach out and are available to the masses are the religiously inclined. They file the vacuum of ordinary dull and difficult lives with hope, even if it be in the hereafter. They provide succour and support the daily lives as well.
No wonder ordinary folks turn to them. I claim no religiosity, nor do I advocate it but Religion is the Therapy that never fails (it is not to use Popperian terms Falsifiable) and if so when life offers nothing, the desolation and despair turns to the hope in the after life.
Women are doubly disadvantaged. They do all the work in the home but have no authority. They are not consulted even when decisions are taken that affect them directly.
Those who are educated are dubbed as westernized (read alien). They also insulate themselves from the illiterate, hence the divide.
I shall respond directly to your letter on my return from China where I am attending Philosophy conference by mid-July.
Ghazala Irfan (57) has been teaching philosophie in Pakistan since 1977. She started out at Punjab University, now she is working at University of Managament Sciences in Lahore. One of her major fields of work is gender studies. Irfan is acquainted with Western and Eastern Thought alike. She has the reputation of being an nonconformist thinker.
Charlotte Wiedemann, 8 July 2004
You are attending a philosophers' conference in China while we exchange our first letters – how interesting! What do scholars from different countries and religions say to each other at a philosophy conference in China?! Surely we won't learn the answer from the news, for the only thing that interests them about China are its production figures.
Besides, the daily beheadings in Iraq are more important. People peacefully sitting down together somewhere outside a Western country in order to exchange thoughts and worldviews seems like an occurrence from a long-vanished world, in any case, the world before September 11, 2001.
I've never shared the view that this date marked an "epochal change," as many in the West claim. But the Western view of the rest of the world has indeed changed – and narrowed – radically since then.
The world "outside," that is, beyond our small islands of European affluence – and security, now only appears to be chaotic, dangerous and violent. Hard to believe that happiness, love, family pleasures, career ambition and marriage quarrels occur "out" there as well, that is, normal life.
Now that Iraq may call itself sovereign again, it is time to take stock of what has happened to us during the past three years. A large German newspaper recently wrote about a "historical hangover" (you see, dear Ghazala, for the profound Germans, everything is always epochal or historical…!): The hangover is supposedly caused by "global frustration" over a crusading America, but also by doubts as to whether so-called Western values can really cure the rest of the world.
Voilà, I'm happy about such hangovers. Praise be to doubt! But how much have we paid for our intoxication.
How did you experience this period? Has the worldview in Pakistan also radically changed since September 11? Certainly not for everyone in the same degree – in your last letter you mentioned the alienation of the educated from the masses, for whom religion is their only tangible support.
And you, a woman Muslim laying no claim to any religious arguments, have you more or less fallen between two stools?
Best regards from Berlin,
Ghazala Irfan, 18 August 2004
The divide that I mentioned in my last letter is not only between the educated and the illiterate. The schism is between the affluent and the poverty-stricken as well; the "haves" have too much and the "have-nots" have nothing.
It is this striking disparity that characterizes us. Concepts of equality or equity are non-existent.
Sharing of power and resources is unheard of. Exploitation is the name of the game.
But if one manipulates, one is also manipulated. The rich remain pawns to the richer i.e. the economically more advanced.
Production is no longer need-oriented but needs revolve around production and are artificially created so that industry may flourish. Power has its own dynamics; it does not recognize national boundaries.
Multinational corporations patent indigenous herbs and staple food. I refer to the patenting of Neem (a much-used medicinal plant) and Basmati (the long-grained rice produced in South Asia).
While the West talks of human rights it seeks to monopolize the food of the world. Monsanto is one such wheat seed that is going to negatively revolutionize agriculture in the Third World.
These seeds are genetically modified and sterile. They shall need to be bought from the producer every year. Conventional and cyclable agriculture shall be eliminated.
And if that is not enough, the adjoining farms to the Monsanto fields shall automatically be converted to the omni-spread of the new high-yield crop.
This means that the dependent become more dependent. And if this is the cycle of exploitation and manipulations by all those who can and do, the ignorant and the poor have no hope...
Why do we (you and I) allow this to continue? Peace, harmony and co-existence need to be based on justice.
Are we uninformed or are we unconcerned? Don't these knowledge gaps and motivation gaps continue to widen? We do pay lip-service to the elimination of ignorance and poverty but the opulence on the one hand and the scarcity on the other cannot be wished away or even talked away.
But let us continue to talk for unless we talk we cannot act but do we must and now.
Charlotte Wiedemann, 25 August 2004
Your last letter made me thoughtful and put me at a loss. I can share your indignation over the exploitative relations prevailing worldwide, but on the other hand, I myself, like it or not, belong to the very West that you describe as an untrustworthy apostle of humanitarianism.
Therefore, I would like to add an observation: resistance against genetically manipulated products is growing in many places, from globalization critics in the West as well from producers from the so-called Third World.
Only these movements are given little attention because the current schism in public awareness along religious-cultural lines dominates everything else – in your part of the world as well as mine. The ideology of crusade or holy war blinds us to the perils lurking in corn's genetic makeup.
Yesterday evening I returned from a four-week stay in Cairo. And since we are on the subject of divisions and inequality, I would like to share with you a few impressions from Egypt.
As I write these words, I recall the owner of a well-known Cairo coffeehouse. He had just purchased his digital camera at an e-bay auction, just like my German friends; that is how similar our consumer habits have become!
But five minutes after talking about prices and pixels, he commented that no peace would ever be reached with Israel. Inevitably, we started talking about Germany and National Socialism.
He refused to believe the historical number of murdered Jews I cited. We only agreed that the technological opportunities offered for communication today far surpass the human capacity for dialogue.
In Cairo, a growing number of women are veiling their faces. Of course, they are a minority, but concerned Egyptian observers are talking about the "Gulf" trend.
The influence of the Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, manifests itself differently among the rich and poor: the rich buy large and ugly white villas in the suburbs of Cairo; the poor bring back a religious lifestyle from their work in Gulf states, which is chiefly expressed in the appearance of their women.
Is it wrong to say that the Islamist influence feeds primarily from social differences within Islamic society – as a feverish reminder of the great importance Islam gives to equality with the ideal of Sawasya?
In August, Cairo's luxury hotels are teeming with Saudi tourists. After an evening in the "Ramses Hilton," I am convinced that the decadence so eagerly attributed to the West also flows in abundance in the Orient.
Perhaps I am a bit naïve as a German, for in my country the rich do not like to show off their wealth; they prefer to hide it. But I can understand why Cairo poets write verses ridiculing their rich brothers (and sisters) from the Gulf!
With cordial greetings from Berlin,
Ghazala Irfan, 9 October 2004
Dear Charlotte Wiedemann,
I would be the last person to advocate a clash of civilizations or subscribe to a "us" & "them" paradigm. Neither do I agree that dialogues between cultures are necessary but impossible (MacIntyre).
To me all humanity also implies humanitarianism. The latter is not the exclusive prerogative of the western outlook. In any case the spectrum of knowledge has had many contributors, each civilization adding to the depth and diversity of the human enterprise. No one can claim it entirely.
Please do not get me wrong: decadence is not being attributed to the west. Neither is exploitation characteristic solely of the west. I would hate to be accused of branding you or the west as 'untrustworthy apostles of humanitarianism'.
Personally I would like humanity to be taken as one without dividing it into the Orient & the west (as being done in your letter). That, however, seems to be a dream for the present, and therefore distant and remote from reality.
At least theoretically we should subscribe to the concept of a common humanity. Perhaps one day a common danger might unite us only that would be out of fear rather then love but hopefully it will mature into a positive bonding.
In the ultimate analysis security issues cloud all the others but even self-presentation can extend itself to include others. After all social life may well be a zero sum game. If one loses, we all lose. But then, as a student of philosophy, I keep returning into prescribing rather than describing.
You, on the other hand, keep bringing me back to the context of reality on the ground: the political scenario that heralds doom and gloom. I happen to be an incorrigible optimist for to lose hope is to lose all. Why be divisive in thought, even if there seem to be unbridgeable divides?
You mention the schism between reality and perception. Yes we refuse to confront facts. Instead comforting fairy tales, whether of religions or superstitions origin, prevail; And we continue to deceive ourselves and thus live in 'bad faith' (existential). And so I see no reason why we cannot disagree with each other and yet respect each other’s views or life styles.
It was a pleasure to dialogue!