Pakistan: Breaking down the stereotypes

April 6, 2008

An economy growing at an average of 7 percent for six years now with a construction  and consumer boom, a rising middle-class that has just voted out a government, a free  press, a thriving fashion scene. Another emerging market star?

Yes, but this is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, better known these days for its  suicide bombings, a nuclear arsenal and labelled as  the epicentre of Islamist extremism including perhaps the last  redoubt of Osama bin Laden in the lands straddling the Afghan border. “Jihadistan” as one reader wrote on this blog. People outside a restaurant in Islamabad after a bomb  blast 

What is the reality ? Are there two Pakistans?  Is it really Pakistan: Now or Never ? Or is the image of Pakistan clouded by TV pictures of blood and gore in its  streets, feeding insecurities while shutting out  the important political, economic and social transformations that are underway in a nation of 150 million people.

Author William Dalrymple travels through the harsh scrublands of Sindh, home to  Kalashnikov-wielding landlords and honour killings, and then back up the Punjab and he  doesn’t find a country flirting with state failure or anything even approaching the  “most dangerous country in the world” as it has been so commonly branded in recent  months, right down to a group by that name on Facebook.

Instead, as he writes in the New York Review of Books, he found a countryside that “was  no less peaceful and prosperous than that on the other side of the Indian border”, and a far cry from the violent instability of post-occupation Iraq or Afghanistan. Pakistan’s cities are changing beyond recognition with shopping malls, expensive cars,  and a burgeoning fashion scene with gay designers and amazingly beautiful women, he says.

                                                                                                                 A model presents a creation by Pakistani designer Warsi during a gem and jewellery fashion show in Karachi           

  And  capping all this is a middle class that grew almost out of nowhere in a country once  famously known as the land of 22 big feudal families, one of them the Bhuttos, for the  absolute political and economic power they wielded.  And it is this enriched and empowered urban middle class that has finally moved from their “living rooms onto the steets, from dinner parties to political parties,” Dalrymple writes, leading a lawyers’ movement that swelled into a full-scale pro-democracy campaign  that has arguably seen off a military dictatorship

Shades of India, the world’s most populous democracy? No, this is Pakistan, but then the world prefers its stereotypes simple. India successful, secular and forward-looking; Islamic Pakistan, a failure.   Are they really different, is it time to break down the stereotypes then?

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