There are some places I’ve been to that absolutely blow my mind. Pakistan is one of them. I never in a million years thought I would get to visit this mysterious country but when the opportunity arose to visit Pakistan with the British Council as an Active Citizen I couldn’t have been more excited.
When I told my friends and family I was going however, it was a different story. They are used to me having an adventurous spirit but this seemed like one step too far. I found that people had so many negative thoughts on the country, without actually knowing anything at all about it. It wasn’t safe. And I appreciate why they thought that way. It’s hard to ignore the news and the way the media portrays Pakistan as full of poverty, terrorism and intolerance.
I, on the other hand, am always one for challenging stereotypes and reassured my friends and family that I would be safe. I even managed to get my mum excited when I was sent the itinerary and we saw that I would be staying at luxurious hotels and going to glamorous restaurants (awkwardly laughing it off when we googled the hotel I was staying at in Islamabad and seeing it had been previously bombed).
Over the course of the week we were invited to see social action projects. They ranged from tackling thalassaemia (a condition I didn’t even know existed before), to helping children go to school, women’s literacy rates, and so much more.
Another participant told us of a chilling conversation she had with someone from a project that was designed to raise the confidence of acid attack survivors. She asked why the men didn’t just kill the women they attacked. She replied that they didn’t want to just kill the women, they wanted to kill them everyday. Not a topic I want to get onto in this post but a powerful statement.
During the week we found out that despite the negative stereotypes surrounding Pakistan, there were so many moving young people trying to challenge them. They were hard-working, full of spirit and determination and love for their country. It was sad in a way to hear what they thought people from other countries thought of them; everywhere we went we were asked: ‘What did you think of Pakistan before you came here?’, ‘What do you think of Pakistan now?’ and ‘What are you going to tell people about Pakistan when you go home?’. It became tiring to answer, but I know that they just wanted to change the image people had of their country.
One eye-opening experience was visiting a Sikh Gurdwara just out of Lahore. Sikhs from all over the world make pilgrimage to it because it marks the birthplace of the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak Dev. Seeing a religious minority was interesting, as Pakistan is often depicted as militant with it’s religious beliefs and intolerant to other cultures.
Yet aren’t we in the West guilty of being narrow-minded when it comes to religion? I’m not religious but I find that the spirituality of others can be quite inspiring and love learning about them. We also did see some beautiful mosques. On another note, I only covered my hair when I was in temples. Despite what people think, it was common to see women without a hijab, and I don’t recall seeing anyone in a burqa or niqab. Having said that, I was in the more modern cities of Islamabad and Lahore.
On the topic of women, we met a lot of strong and intelligent women. There is no denying that there are problems with gender in Pakistan. Domestic abuse, child marriage, forced marriage and honour killings are just some of the issues. Regardless, we spoke with countless respectful men and wonderful women.
There are many sides to this story and I have only just scratched the surface with this one. Pakistan can be such a complex country, but I had such a rewarding experience and an unforgettable week. I found it so positive to be able to come home and challenge some of the perceptions people had. Hopefully, by giving my first hand account it will go some way in tackling the stigma. It really was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Have you ever been to Pakistan? Or have you ever been to a country with negative stereotypes surrounding it?