Trapped and Torn - Pakistan's Youth

published June 2011 for the Heinrich Boell Foundation 


Inspired by Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa’s research on Pakistan’s youth at elite universities, I used my time in Lahore to talk with as many students as I could. I wanted to get a sense for what her study described as closed minds, and attitudes which are shaped by an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ paradigm. Also, I was interested in understanding individuals and their reasons, which lead to increasingly conservative mindsets. Especially within a socio-economic group that has access to resources, which would allow them to develop critical ideas. Moreover universities could be platforms for organizing and voicing alternatives to the contemporary political and social establishment, as they historically have been across the world.

Pakistani youth outside his school

Pakistani youth outside his school

The assertion that radicalization and militancy is not exclusively linked to poverty, illiteracy and subjugated parts of society poses questions for Pakistan’s future, as it experiences a rising readiness amongst its people to shut their minds off to alternative and inclusive values. Such an assertion, is not confined to Pakistan, it should push every society to scrutinize its own adherence to values and established ideas. Historically mankind has proven that we are all too ready to follow a set of values, ideas or aims, which are justified to us, repeatedly over a period of time by a dominant group or leader. The radicalization of people, who have the fiscal as well as intellectual means, but don’t use them to formulate alternatives, which challenge a growingly repressive society is not a Pakistani phenomenon. It has happened before in all kinds of places and times. The radicalization of educated, affluent youth means a society’s progress is paralyzed and the question is what is the key in today’s Pakistan to open doors, which let in alternatives that challenge radical sentiments becoming mainstream? And can the next generation of educated Pakistanis provide the answer?

What follows are impressions I have gathered in conversations with students from different universities in Lahore. They are by no stretch a comprehensive summary of the majority’s opinion, nor is it an analytical account of a selected group. These conversations took place because I was curious to find out if the trend which was highlighted in Siddiqa’s study, is apparent to me as an outsider.  As I am a student myself, and the same age as most of the people I spoke with we had common grounds to compare and relate our views. The overriding feeling which remains with me was the people’s enthusiasm when talking with me about their views. It often felt like they were happy to get a chance to offer their perspective on Pakistan and their lives within it. Several times I heard phrases like “We are not all terrorists here, that’s just what America wants the rest of the world to believe.”

Even before I came to Pakistan I had heard that Pakistanis have a love for conspiracy theories, and although I joked with many about this creative pastime, it is indicative of a latent mistrust in many people’s opinions. At Lahore University I asked a third year law student what he thought was Pakistan’s biggest problem at the moment. His response was “Pakistan’s biggest problem is that we have two enemies – the US and India – both try to crush us. The only reason Pakistan still exists is because of Allah.” His friends who were sitting and chatting with us, were not shocked or surprised, they didn’t disagree. His viewpoint is an accepted one. Later on a friend who had accompanied me termed this attitude the “clash of ignorance”. Masood is studying film at the National College of Arts (NCA), he is from Hunsa and told me that it took him some time to get used to the Punjabi mentality of thinking in very black and white terms about Pakistan’s politics. The Hunsa Valley in the Northern Areas of Pakistan is exceptional with a 90% literacy rate, and the group of friends I met from that area continued to surprise me with liberal and more balanced views compared to most of their fellow students.

One of them was Nisar, a documentary filmmaker. He has organized workshops for people to make short films on topics they had to come up with. He said that working in rural areas with sometimes even illiterate people was inspiring because they would want to tell stories about fundamental problems in their society like sexual segregation and harassment, bonded labor or the effect of water shortage and the aftermath of the floods. His comment on the urban students at elite universities was “they mostly want to do hip hop videos or talk shows. They want to produce something comparable to the Western media. They are not interested in issues from their reality.”

On the one hand there is resentment towards the West, especially the US, at the same time there is a level of mimicry going on. Sometimes when I would bring up concepts of equality or freedom there would be agreement on their inherent virtue, but when applied to their own context it became more difficult to accommodate them. The topic of homosexuality for example, was accepted amongst most of the students as something everyone knew about, but it was never a topic they talked about with ease. A friend who is gay just laughed when I asked how public he can be about his sexuality. He said: “There is nothing public about it, it all happens behind closed doors, even though people know about it.  One of my closest friends got so angry with me when I told him that I was gay, he threatened to beat me up. He asked me how I could pretend to be a good Muslim.”

The topic of Religion found its way into many of the conversations. Although the superficial signs of religious conformity, like women wearing hijab and men with beards were very rare among the students, almost all of them professed a close relationship to Islam. Still, it felt like my questions about “how religious” they considered themselves were difficult to answer. Hafiz for example considered himself “not really a strict Muslim at all”, but when I asked him how often he prayed, he told me:”Well, five times a day of course.” The topic of religion repeatedly showed me how different our understanding of a concept sometimes was. Often religion came up in connection to Pakistan’s politics too. My proposition whether Pakistan one day could become a secular state would mostly evoke reactions, which made me feel as though I had proposed that one day we’ll all fly on magic carpets instead of using cars. Although many had an instinctive reaction for a religious state, other questions about politics were readily dismissed with disillusionment about politicians and the corrupt system. The most passionate remarks about political topics came out when a group of students from different areas around Pakistan got into arguments which were infused by local patriotism – the Sindhis vs. Punjabis vs. Balochis and so on. Karim, a literature student and aspiring writer, told me that he wants to stay away from politics, but get to Pakistani minds “I want to create a soft version of Pakistan through my writing to remind people of our traditions and culture, we don’t need politics to tell us who we are.”

One day when I had just returned from a visit to Punjab University, I received an email from a girl I had chatted with. She forwarded me a link to a song and translated the lyrics for me. She said that the following lines summed up how she felt about living in Pakistan “There is a lot more loneliness for me before I can dream of happiness, because I see problems down the line, please don’t let the darkness eat me up!” She had told me about the struggle she was enduring at home, because she decided to no longer wear hijab. Also her decision to decide independently when and how to practice her religion was causing friction in her family. When I asked her where she took the strength from to fight for her independence she said that she was lucky in finding support amongst her friends, but really she felt very alone and was hoping to go abroad and make a new start. Another strong-willed woman I met at the Arts College historic campus, was appalled at my suggestion that students at elite universities in Pakistan had increasingly conservative attitudes. “We are not conservative at all! We go through transitions and change all the time. We are individuals here!” As far as the atmosphere confined to the Arts College was concerned, I believed her wholeheartedly. When I asked her how aware she thought her classmates were of Pakistan’s problems, she replied “I think we all know that there are a lot of problems and it’s difficult to find solutions. My passion is art but one day I want to work in a place where I can change things for Pakistan. I’m not sure where that will be yet.”

I tried to imagine what it would be like if someone from Pakistan was to come to my university in London and ask similar questions about our self-perception, our political views, religious affiliation, our aspirations and so on. There would be similarities in attitudes of young people who are making up their minds about life and the world on a daily basis, there would be similarities in the level of uncertainty about what the future might bring, but something which I believe is unique for today’s Pakistani youth is a sense of torment. There are rules set by families and society, there is a dominant self perception of Pakistani which is shaped by current international affairs and a feeling of living in a world hostile to their nationality. Young people in search of their identity, are torn apart by the confusion about what it means to be Pakistani, as the inside and outside versions of that idea are vastly different. The disparate versions are enhanced by a growing, global interconnectedness through the internet and the media. Siddiqa’s study names several other reasons for this state of confusion amongst today’s generation. The 80’s have left a conservative legacy in Pakistan’s society, and years of military dictatorship have destroyed institutions for democratic development. Religious groups were able to steadily gain influence and power in politics and society. Also the quality of social science education lacks depth to foster awareness for a greater perspective of political and social issues.

The result seems to be a generation which is trapped in reductive geo-political circumstances and repressive elements within their social context. For many the instinctive reaction is to turn to religion for a sense of belonging which in itself doesn’t make them radical, but I think it has encouraged many to shut off their minds to a wider perspective. Turning their back on political and social developments has caused a level of blindness for alternatives to conservative values, which have been growing more influential in Pakistan over a long period of time. The affluent, educated youth of Pakistan is not deprived of resources to improve their society’s circumstances, but they are trapped in fear. Young Pakistanis are enduring lives confined to the realms of their homes, universities and workplaces. Public life is incredibly restricted and freedom is defined by which rule they can break without getting into trouble, rather than by how much they are in power of their individual lives. To me the state of trapped and confused torment is summarized by the response to my often posed question of why is the Arab Spring not influencing Pakistan too? Why are Pakistani students not in the streets to demand change? The most common response was: “I don’t know why it’s not happening, but if a revolution starts I will support it!”