Over the last decade, a stereotypical image of Pakistan has crystallised over a span in the Western media. For most people abroad, Pakistan is a haven for bearded, gunslinging extremists gung-ho about blowing places up and imposing Sharia law. Contrary to this depiction are some alternative stories about Pakistan that have been making headlines abroad.
Recently, Declan Walsh’s piece, “In a Troubled Country, Still Time for High Society” (published June 24, 2012) in The New York Times, about the high society in Pakistan, offers a glimpse of a world of Louboutins and designer lawn. Walsh’s article is heralded by many similar efforts, which show ‘the other side’ of Pakistan: Adam Ellick’s report in The New York Times, “Lacy Threads and Leather Straps Bind a Business” (April 27, 2009), on the manufacturing of sex toys in Karachi, Jonathan Foreman’s article “Ale under the veil: the only brewery in Pakistan” (March 24, 2012) in The Telegraph on the brewing industry in Pakistan and the countless headlines on Veena Malik’s nude photo shoots in every top Western publication.
The underlying idea in most of these works is the same: in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan — the stronghold of radical forces — there are startling contradictions. Behind the veil of extremism, there is sex, alcohol and high fashion. And strongly depicted in many of these stories is a clash between the liberal cohort and the extremists. The brothers who manufacture sex toys in the ‘Islamist stronghold’ of Karachi were apparently threatened by the Taliban. Veena Malik vowed to challenge death threats by Islamists and brewing beer is a dangerous job in ‘one of the world’s strictest Islamic states’. Notice the similarity in the narrative?
Thus, for the audience abroad, Pakistan seems like a burka-clad woman wearing the skimpiest bikini underneath. There’s no better metaphor to describe the tantalising spectre of Pakistan’s liberal-conservative dichotomy that captivates the Western imaginary. Even though some might criticise this as blatantly stereotyping a country, it’s actually clever journalism because it gets people talking.
However, Pakistanis themselves have started mistaking this powerful image of their country as its reality. Clash of civilisations might be a shoddy theory but for educated Pakistanis, it actually has great resonance. They think that their country is nothing but a grand battlefield for two opposing worldviews. Countless op-eds have been published on the conflict between modernity and tradition, moderate Islam and extremism and liberalism and radicalism that has supposedly gripped our country. This type of writing reveals a typical mindset, which considers that Pakistan is defined by the clash between liberals and extremists. Yet, in reality, the two groups hardly cross paths; it’s not exactly Pakistan’s privileged lot that gets targeted in suicide bombings.
And so, when we want to show the ‘soft side’ of Pakistan to the world, we immediately think of touting the glamorous haven of fashion, music and parties that exists on the margins. We, too, want to project the paradox of Pakistan to salvage our image. But by negating one stereotype, we reinforce another.
So, let’s look around us and gauge the authenticity of this polarity. I, for one, don’t just see bearded mullahs and stiletto-wearing liberals.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2012.
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