The other Pakistan

July 9, 2014

Islamabad, Pakistan

By Zohra Bensemra

A fist slams into a punching bag. Sparks flare from a saw as a punk carves a huge guitar from a block of stone. A female climber dangles precariously from a cliff.

A Pakistani interior designer Zahra Afridi uses a circular saw as she sculpts a guitar outside the classic rock cafe she designed in Islamabad

Welcome to Pakistan, a country of 180 million people whose residents are as varied as they come. Among them are millionaires and beggars, child brides and female executives, the Taliban and an ultra-chic international jet set.

Many Pakistanis feel angry that headlines about their beloved nation are dominated by violence and extremism, saying that a number of troublemakers has been allowed to define their country’s image.

Everyone has heard of Malala, the schoolgirl activist shot by the Taliban, but few outside the country know about the exploding private education sector. The private Beaconhouse School System, for example, has established around 150 schools across the country.

Aleena Raza  who manages her mother's business reads a book at her bedroom in Lahore

People are familiar with images of burning American flags but beyond the photo frame, in the newly-built gated community of Bahria Town, stands a new Classic Rock café likely to be home to latte-sipping Twitterati, not far from a luxury cinema and American-style houses.

In the two years I’ve lived in Pakistan, I’ve covered plenty of stories about the Taliban, poverty, honor killings and violence – an important part of the country’s story and one that cannot be ignored.

Ansa Hasan, a Manager Marketing of Porsche Pakistan gestures as she prepares for the upcoming event to propmote a new  sport car in Pakistan outside the porsche showroom in Lahore

But it’s not the only story. I’ve also listened to a rock band; met a hardcore woman climber; taken tea with a Porsche-driving, parrot-loving female executive; gone to a Pilates class and made friends with passionate and funny people just getting on with their lives.

Pakistan women cricket team captain Sana Mir (C) sits with the physical therapist(L) and her team mate during a training session in prepararion for the international Twenty20 cricket tournament in Muridkay

Sana Mir is one of them. She left an engineering degree to follow her passion for cricket, and is now captain of the Pakistan women’s cricket team, ranked among the world’s top 10 female bowlers in One Day International cricket.

Almost all the women I photographed studied abroad and their degrees come from some of the world’s top universities. But instead of staying abroad, they came home to their families, businesses and country.

“I’m lucky,” said Aleena Raza, who went to finishing school in Switzerland and loves high-end fashion. “I don’t want to go abroad. We need to build our country.”

Aleena Raza  who manages her mother's business dresses up for a party at her clothes dressing room in Lahore

Of course, these opportunities are only available to very few. Life for most Pakistanis remains a struggle, and a foreign degree and the opportunities it confers are an impossible dream.

Many of the country’s citizens remain mired in poverty or threatened by violence. In North Waziristan, a region where the army recently started an offensive against the Taliban, the female literacy rate is two percent.

But even in Pakistan’s most remote and dangerous regions, things are slowly changing. Nazia Parveen, a 23-year-old rock climber, comes from Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a border region near Afghanistan. She is studying defense and diplomatic studies and dreams of training other women from her area to climb, she said.

A Pakistani first woman Rock Climber Nazia Parveen(R) jokes with her trainer Imran junaidi as he gives him belay during their routine practice in Islamabad

“I want to change the image of women in FATA. I took the sport as a challenge to show the world that nothing is impossible for a woman from the tribal areas if she has a goal in mind,” she said.

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