By Sultan Abbas
Between Malala and the Kohistani Women murdered for clapping in a dance video- the nature of “culture” debate in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The society of Gilgit-Baltistan is today divided on what constitutes their culture. The social media is filled with debates around the proper role of women in society and the nature of gender relations. A large cross-section believes that the recent dance performance for a TV program has tarnished GB culture and portrayed the women of GB in obscenely negative ways. They maintain that women are not allowed to dance publically in GB culture, and they must secure the consent of their guardians to commit to such an act. They believe that their women’s behavior is tied with their family honor as if women eternally shackled to men to decide what is appropriate and what is not good for them.
On the other hand, an equally large number of people with powerful arguments and voices believe in the equality of woman and the foundational value they attach to freedom of choice for everyone. This group says that if men can dance in public without any consequence this right should be extended to women too as a fair principle of justice. They also believe that without women’s full participation in all the spectrum of social activities a people can never truly attain liberation. To advance the cause of freedom and justice as well as bring the society at par with the demands of modernity, this later group believes in absolute choice for the womenfolk.
To put both these viewpoints and the ensuring hot discussion in context lets briefly glance at GB’s social profile. Comprising seven districts, adhering to four distinct interpretations of Islam, i.e. the Sunnis, the Ithna Ashri Shia, the Ismailis, and the Noorbakshis, they speak at least ten different languages among them, and they belong to tens of different tribes and ethnic groups, some of whom claim European ancestry and others claim Arab descent. Despite this enormous scale of diversity in a population of less than two million the people of GB have demonstrated remarkable cohesion in terms of their broader outlook on life and conceptions of what is a good life, what is the right thing to do and so on. Across GB we have evolved a culture of hospitality and honesty. For example, our diverse peoples have returned lost wallets in Hunza, in Ghizer, in Skardu, in Gilgit and also in Chilas on a number of occasions.
Historically the plural city of Gilgit has hosted all these different communities of language, of ethnicity, and of faith commitments to live a largely peaceful life for much of its history, except an upsurge of sectarian hatred played out recently in last few decades. But the people have also demonstrated remarkable resilience to reach out to each other and we have demonstrated the extraordinary capacity for reconciliation. For example, following the Chilas, and Lulusar massacre of Ithna Ashri Shi’ites delegations from Chilas have arrived in Nagar to offer olive branches and to reaffirm that those events were aberrations rather than the norm. Similarly, in the recent visit of His Highness the Aga Khan, when hundreds of his followers travled to Hunza, members of other faiths protected and looked after properties of the people traveling from Gilgit to Hunza for two days.
To cut a long story short I believe that there continue to exist a set of diverse opinions, sometimes at odds with each other, on the nature of gender relations in society, among others. The conception of what represents the proper role of women in society in Hunza is clearly different from that of what people believe to be true in Kashrote or Majini Mahallah on the same subject.
While I would tolerate differences of opinion but it was painful for me to notice a large swathe of highly educated people from different communities vilifying the people of Hunza and painting them with broad brushes as the evil incarnate planted and working on western agendas. Some even called for violent attacks. This is clearly an indication of extremist mindset which must be defeated if we are as a whole in GB to live together and achieve our common goals of peaceful development in the age of CPEC and climate change. I beleive that our young generation should not fall prey to retrogressive froces who set wrong priorities and dissipate the youth’s energy on trivial matters. The englighted youth must reject them all- just like it was incumbent upon all of us to condemn school burning in Chilas, the Chief Secretary’s vile remarks in Skardu, the terrorism in Gilgit and so on. If we dont do that we risk a balkanised and highly mountainous society at the doors of a rising China which is no good for anyone.
I believe the people of GB need to learn the best things that we do from each other and focus on real issues of our common oppression and marginalization in this age of geoeconomic challenges. The space for enlighted debate must never be violated.
Summing up the discussion- I have a question to ask form the so-called guardians of women’s rights in GB and the moral police- do you want to become like the Kohistani tribals who killed three young women who clapped for a dancing cousin- or do you want your women to be beacons of light and progress like Malala Yousufzai, who globally campagins for education and girls rights to live a life of their own. If you want the former I cannot guide you, but if you want the later then you need to begin to tolerate the womenfolk’s God-given individuality and reject Awami Action type bigots.